Wisconsin’s defense thrives on pressure in 33-24 victory against Northwestern

MADISON, Wis. — The pressure can come from anywhere at any time, and that makes opposing quarterbacks feel queasy. So flustered are they that an unfortunate case of happy feet often develops. Symptoms include dancing in the pocket and then bailing under an intense pass rush that ruins the entire play call.

Wisconsin’s defense tends to have this effect. And on Saturday, the Badgers demonstrated just how infectious their blitzing and bull rushing can be, wreaking havoc on Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson and the Wildcats.

No. 10 Wisconsin squeezed past Northwestern 33-24 at Camp Randall Stadium because of a defense that held strong amid a disastrous first half offensively. That defense then came up with a critical stop after the Wildcats mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to make the game interesting.

“Just great play calling,” Wisconsin cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Great play by the D-line and linebackers. They make it easy on us. I felt like I was only covering out there for like three seconds at some points.”

So effective was Wisconsin’s defense that six players accounted for 8 total sacks, the team’s highest sack total since collecting 8 against Penn State in 2001. The Badgers also finished with a season-high 11 tackles for loss. Throughout the game, there was no telling which player might wind up in the backfield.

Outside linebacker Garret Dooley led Wisconsin with 3 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Defensive ends Alec James and Isaiahh Loudermilk each recorded a sack, as did inside linebacker Chris Orr. Safety Natrell Jamerson added 0.5 sack, but he was busy intercepting 2 passes, including 1 for a touchdown. Safety D’Cota Dixon notched 1.5 sacks, including the all-important fourth-quarter sack that resulted in a safety of Thorson to seal the game.

Wisconsin forced Northwestern into being a one-dimensional offense because the Wildcats couldn’t run the ball. Wisconsin allowed 25 rushing yards, the Badgers’ fewest against a Big Ten opponent since holding Michigan State to 25 rushing yards on Nov. 1, 2008.

In every sense, it was a complete team effort on defense.

“Our guys were so active,” Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “They were a bunch of energy plays with guys not giving up on the back side and still finishing their rushes and getting to the quarterback. That’s a credit to our DBs as well for covering the guys for long enough to make the quarterback hold the ball a little longer.”

Wisconsin struggled greatly on offense during the first half, turning the ball over 3 times, which included 2 interceptions from quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Badgers receiver Jazz Peavy lost a fumble on the team’s first play, giving Northwestern the ball at Wisconsin’s 25-yard line. But Wisconsin inside linebacker Leon Jacobs stopped Northwestern tailback Justin Jackson for a loss on third-and-1 and forced a field goal.

Although Northwestern led 3-0, it felt like a victory for Wisconsin.

“That’s huge,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “That series right there by them was massive. For us to go out and do something like that, it’s not good. But for them, with the field position we gave them, to hold them to a field goal is awesome. That really helps us have a better second drive, knowing that we’ve got them, they’ve got our backs.”

So confident was Wisconsin’s defense that team members said they were genuinely disappointed Northwestern opted to defer the kickoff until the second half when it won the opening coin toss.

“I feel like we can set the tone for the entire game,” Orr said. “It sparks our offense and doesn’t knock much time off the clock. It’s almost like we got the kickoff.”

Player Sacks TFLs
LB Garret Dooley 3.0 4.5
S D’Cota Dixon 1.5 1.5
LB Chris Orr 1.0 1.0
DE Alec James 1.0 1.0
DE Isaiahh Loudermilk 1.0 1.0
LB Leon Jacobs 0.0 1.0
LB T.J. Edwards 0.0 0.5
S Natrell Jamerson 0.5 0.5

Wisconsin led 31-10 in the fourth quarter after Jamerson returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown, and the game appeared over. But the Badgers defense finally broke — at least temporarily — on two consecutive touchdown drives. Thorson threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman and a 5-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Dickerson.

It marked the first time all season Wisconsin had surrendered a second-half point and snapped a streak of 115 minutes, 14 seconds without giving up anything after halftime. Wisconsin’s defense still had one more opportunity to prove itself when it mattered most.

With 58 seconds remaining, Northwestern took possession backed up at its own 2-yard line with a chance to tie. On second-and-3 from the 9-yard line, Dixon came flying into the end zone on a blitz, and Thorson wasn’t prepared to release the ball. He took a safety, effectively ending any potential comeback bid. Thorson finished the game completing 29 of 45 passes for 219 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.

Afterward, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said the Wildcats offense and coaching staff shared the blame.

“We have to put him in better situations,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s protections, it’s calls, it’s routes, schematics. We have to protect better, we’ve got to get open and he’s got to get it out of his hands. So, that’s the whole thing with the passing game. When it’s off, it’s just really ugly, and for a while [Saturday], it was really ugly.”

Wisconsin players attributed several reasons for the defense’s strong performance beyond the sheer depth of talent at all three levels. Dooley said defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield, outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard were responsible for implementing a new pressure the defense hadn’t shown before. That pressure helped lead to a sack by Dooley and another from Loudermilk.

Dixon said the overall success could be traced to the culture and high standard set by previous defenses. He said he learned from former Badgers safety Michael Caputo, with whom he still exchanges text messages.

Linebacker Ryan Connelly noted the communication from front to back was the best it had been since he had been in the program because so many players had been on the field together for multiple seasons. That time together has created a chemistry and energy off the field and during games

“We’re all extremely close,” Dooley said. “I know T.J. Edwards, his best friends are the big boys on the D-line and O-line. We just kind of all hang out with each other off the field. I think that really helps our camaraderie on the field. Since we are so close, we’re able to bring a bunch of energy and when people are making plays, we’re able to be happy for them. It’s not a, ‘Me, me, me’ type of thing. It’s, ‘This is our defense.’ We’re playing as one and everyone has each others’ backs.”

It certainly showed on Saturday. And even though Wisconsin’s defense wasn’t perfect, it produced the result the Badgers needed.

“We’ve got weapons all over the field,” Dixon said. “We really pride ourselves on our defense. That was the only thing that kind of had me a little disappointed about our finish. But anytime you get a win, you’ve got to be grateful for that. We’ll get it fixed next week.”

The post Wisconsin’s defense thrives on pressure in 33-24 victory against Northwestern appeared first on Land of 10.

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