With a completely new coaching staff, the Badgers have been under a trial period on both sides of the ball through the first few weeks of the season.
The offense has slowly started to emerge, with offensive coordinator Phil Longo figuring out a balanced approach, while the defense had their best game of the season in Week 5, neutralizing a Rutgers’ ground game that had averaged nearly 200 yards a contest.
However, there was one play that shook the entire momentum of the game: cornerback Ricardo Hallman’s 95-yard pick-six that provided the Badgers with a 17-0 lead heading into halftime.
Hallman’s interception not only was a scoring play for the Badgers, but it also took away an opportunity for Rutgers to capitalize on their redzone drive, which could've made it a three-point game heading into the half, with the Scarlet Knights getting the football to begin the second half.
After the game, head coach Luke Fickell acknowledged how valuable of a play it was from Hallman, deeming it the play of the game.
“Came out the first half, played really well. Defensively, played exceptional. You know, obviously, the pick-six right there before half, I think that’s the difference in the ball game,” Fickell said postgame. “They were playing right into their hands for what they wanted. You know, the last four minutes of the first half, first four minutes of the second half. A very well-oiled program and team that knows what they can do.”
“And they kind of had it in their mode right there. And then Rico (Ricardo Hallman) comes up with not only a huge pick, great play, but then he takes it to the house with only four seconds left to go in the half. There’s no doubt — there was some things that happened in the second half, but there’s no doubt that’s the difference in the ball game.”
For Hallman, it’s been a nice adjustment in 2023, as the cornerback has developed into a meaningful starter for the Badgers just a season after being benched following multiple tough performances.
The 5’9 cornerback has occupied the field cornerback position opposite the combination of Alexander Smith and Nyzier Fourqueran, and has intercepted four passes on the season, leading the Big Ten.
But, the growth didn't just begin in the fall; instead, Hallman started coming into his own during the spring, best highlighted by a three-interception performance in Wisconsin’s spring game, as well as a multitude of other turnovers during spring ball.
Hallman’s performance on Saturday prompted Fickell to reminisce back to the spring, when he called Hallman the most consistent player of the defense.
“Well, I think I said it after spring, and maybe even in the midst of fall camp if you asked me who the most consistent person I think on the team has been, I would say Rico,” Fickell said after the game. “And I didn’t know that I had seen some of those flash plays. Obviously, in the spring game, I think he had three picks.”
“But through spring ball and til’ that day, I don’t know if I saw a ton of big plays. Maybe picks and things. A lot of times, the field corner doesn’t have as much action at times.”
“But then after the spring game, I started to recognize how consistent he does things. And when opportunities are there, obviously, he made them then. And, you know, same way in fall camp. And, you know, he is very consistent at what he does. He’s a smart football player. And he’s playing at a high level for us.”
During the spring, I had asked Hallman about the changes in the coaching staff, and the field cornerback had told me how the new defensive scheme played better to his skillset, as him being the off-cornerback with consistent safety help allowed him to play more free, while trusting his instincts more consistently.
Through five games, the cornerback has looked to be more free, trusting his instincts to make plays on the ball and overcoming his smaller frame to play physically in the Big Ten.
Now, Hallman still has some lapses getting beaten downfield, which is expected of him given the size, but it’s been a rapid improvement for the cornerback in his second year of true playing time, and the coaching staff has taken notice.
Reflecting back on last season, the cornerback came into 2023 with a mentality of ensuring that his mistakes wouldn't happen again.
“Kind of throughout the to like before the season, for the season, I watched my entire Michigan State game just to kind of I really watched that because I wanted to make a point of like, this won’t happen again,” Hallman said after the game.
After a tough loss to Michigan State in overtime last season where Hallman was repeatedly picked on deep, the cornerback vowed to improve, which has happened early in the season thus far.
“I’m going to be better this year. I won’t let this happen to me again. I won’t be a reason this team loses,” Hallman said about his mentality following last year’s performance.
“Just kind of like that. So that was a big reflection moment for me before the season, just kind of knowing that ultimately what I had to do and how I wanted to attack this season and just be better.”
Looking forward, it’s clear that the Badgers need to be consistent after a strong defensive performance in Week 5.
That starts with Hallman, who has been consistent, and will need to continue elevating his play for the Badgers to start getting in a rhythm defensively.