Getting Healthier, Wisconsin's Defense Looks For Complete Performance

Getting Healthier, Wisconsin's Defense Looks For Complete Performance

Football

Getting Healthier, Wisconsin's Defense Looks For Complete Performance

Watching from the sidelines for three weeks was hardly ideal for defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk. But while the redshirt sophomore rested his injured knee during a grueling three games in October, Loudermilk recognized one important attribute that he hopes will carry through the final month of the regular season.

Despite all the moving parts and players getting their first real game experience, Loudermilk has seen a group that has made significant strides since the beginning of the season.

“It’s definitely been a process,” Loudermilk said. “Getting banged up is never what you want, but it’s definitely been a growing opportunity for the young guys, the young DBs, the young defensive linemen. The injuries put them in the spotlight a little more and get them a little bit more comfortable. I feel like we’ll be able to go into this week knowing we have more personnel than we’ve had in recent weeks. I feel like everyone is pretty comfortable with their job and their roles.”

Dealing with a rash of injuries that have sidelined six defensive backs and two defensive linemen who have started games this season, Wisconsin’s defense has made strides in recent weeks that have flown under the radar.

Over their last four games (at Michigan, vs. Illinois, at Northwestern and vs. Rutgers), the Badgers have made passing a challenge for their opponents, allowing them to complete 60 of 111 passes for 642 yards and just two touchdowns while grabbing six interceptions and recording 12 pass breakups.

With a combined pass efficiency rating of 97.8, the last four opponents avearged just 160.5 yards per game and 5.8 yards per attempt against UW’s defense.

“If we want to, we can put together a string of good quarters,” inside linebacker Ryan Connely said. “That’s something we have to build on moving forward.”

While the Badgers have had bits and pieces of dominant performances, UW enters tomorrow’s road game at No.21 Penn State still trying to put it all together.

Since the Michigan game, Wisconsin has delivered a strong half of football, only to have it being ruined by less-than-stellar finishing kick. The Badgers held the Wolverines to 13 points and 82 rushing in the first half but gave up 237 yards on the ground and wore down in the second half, likely due to the fact the unit was on the field for over 37 minutes.

Wisconsin generated five first-half turnovers in a win over Illinois a week later but also allowed eight runs of at least 10 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown, and the loss to Northwestern was marred by 24 points given up in the red zone.

Even last week’s performance against last-place Rutgers left players frustrated. The Scarlet Knights have one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten and the Badgers delivered a first-half shutout, helping out its offense’s own struggles. But when UW’s offense started finding its rhythm, the defense became sluggish, giving up 222 yards in the second half and bemoaning the fact they generated no turnovers against a mistake-prone unit.

Those lapses could be costly this weekend. Penn State is third in the Big Ten in “big play” (15 or more passing yards and 12 or more rushing yards) percentage (15.79% of plays; 17th in FBS) and is fourth in the Big Ten in 12 or more-yard run percentage (13.43% of plays; 20th in FBS).

“The offense isn’t always going to be rolling, that’s just how football works, but if you can hold a team to zero points, nothing is hurt,” nose tackle Bryson Williams said. “We felt really good about that. The defense was fired up that we could get the ball right back to the offense and let them do whatever they need to do. Overall I think it was a nice bounce back, (but) we have to make sure we don’t get complacent in the locker room at halftime.”

Youth won’t be an excuse for UW anymore, especially this late in the season and knowing the Badgers are getting back some key contributors. While nose tackle Olive Sagapolu is done for the season with an arm injury, the Badgers welcomed back Loudermillk and senior strong safety D’Cota Dixon last week after both players missed three games.

“It’s a huge boost because we see these guys working and we want them to do well when they come in,” Williams said. “They do exactly what they’re supposed to do, and they do a great job. That’s so much experience you don’t have until they get back, so them being back is huge as far as communication, as far as just playing ball.”

UW also could get back cornerback Deron Harrell (ankle) and free safety Scott Nelson (right hamstring) this weekend, meaning the Badgers will be the healthiest they’ve been since the season began.

Considering everything the group has been through, this could be the kick that gets Wisconsin trending in the right direction.

“We’ve definitely grown everyone, pass rush, run stopping,” Loudermilk said. “I feel like everybody is more comfortable and playing a lot more physicality than we were earlier in the season. Practicing during the week, we’ve been able to get better in all aspects.”

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