MADISON, Wis. — Members of Wisconsin’s football team walked into the Lucas Oil Stadium locker room last year just one strong half from finishing a dominant performance in the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin led Penn State by 2 touchdowns and appeared on its way to its first league title in four years and a spot in the Rose Bowl.
But in the span of 30 minutes of game clock, that dream came crashing down in Indianapolis. Wisconsin’s defense uncharacteristically couldn’t force Penn State off the field. Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley hit receiver Saeed Blacknall for a 70-yard touchdown pass on the team’s first play of the second half, and the Badgers never recovered. The Nittany Lions connected on 6 passing plays in the second half that went for at least 14 yards.
In the end, Penn State stormed back for a 38-31 victory that left Wisconsin stunned. McSorley finished with title-game records of 384 yards passing and 4 touchdowns.
“Remembering back, it’s almost like it just wasn’t happening at all,” Badgers inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. “The next thing you know, they were winning. They made some plays on us, they caught some balls deep and they were having success with it.”
Added cornerback Derrick Tindal: “It was pretty tough. Just being out on the field feeling like you couldn’t help your team do anything. They weren’t really coming at me. But you learn, you live, forget. But don’t forget all of it.”
One year later, No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0) is headed back to the Big Ten Championship Game, where it will face No. 8 Ohio State (10-2). The opponent and circumstances surrounding the game are different. But the lessons the Badgers took from that second half still apply.
“It’s definitely a learning experience to know that even if we get in a situation where we’re down, we’re not completely out of the game,” Connelly said. “Also, if we get up big to know they’re not out of the game. Really, anything can happen. It just goes to show you’ve got to play every down like it’s your last down.”
Wisconsin’s defense has carried that approach into this season, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.
Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in total defense (236.9 yards per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (80.5), No. 2 in pass defense (156.4) and No. 2 in scoring defense (12 points). Wisconsin has allowed 15 touchdowns this season, the fewest of any FBS team. But the defense has been responsible for only 12 of those touchdowns.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said a big reason for that success stemmed from the number of returning players from last season, which has created confidence at all levels of the field. Two of the most important talking points Leonhard uses each week are to stop the run and not allow explosive plays in the passing game, and the Badgers have adhered to that strategy well.
Wisconsin is the only team in the nation to not surrender a run of 30 yards or longer this season. The longest run against the Badgers was a 28-yarder by Nebraska tailback Devine Ozigbo on Oct. 7. Wisconsin’s defense also has allowed just 32 plays of at least 20 yards. Among Power 5 conference teams, only Washington has given up fewer explosive plays with 31.
“For the most part, we’ve won our 1-on-1 battles this year,” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Guys are challenging players on every play. I think that’s just guys playing with confidence. Confident in the game plan and confident in each other that if something does go wrong, there will be a guy right next to you to have your back. I think it’s very easy to let it loose and play free when you know someone is going to be there to help.”
Tindal said he has been impressed at what he’s seen from the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.
“Every time I watch film, I’m amazed at what I see,” Tindal said. “Like, dang, all these guys really are down there working. I appreciate that from my standpoint and it makes me feel like, man, they’re down there working, I’ve got to handle my job, make sure their job is easier.
“We work in tandem. I’m just proud of everybody. What we’ve been able to accomplish, all the doubters, all the naysayers, ‘Oh, y’all losing this, y’all losing that.’ They say it every year, man. But Wisconsin always finds a way.”
Wisconsin’s defense was so good this season that 12 different players earned some form of all-Big Ten honors — even more impressive considering only 11 players can be on the field at one time.
But before members of the defense begin patting themselves on the back, they are aware that their most difficult challenges are still to come. That starts Saturday against an Ohio State team that ranks fourth in the FBS in total offense (529.8 yards per game) and fifth in scoring (43.8 points).
“There’s some weeks we know that we weren’t exactly challenged and we know there’s better opponents out there waiting for us,” Connelly said. “To know that we will face better opponents keeps us hungry not to completely accept the fact that we’re so amazing or anything.”
Wisconsin has spent the week studying Ohio State game film, which has provided another lesson on the importance of finishing games. Last season, Wisconsin led Ohio State 16-6 at halftime and clung to a 16-13 lead after three quarters. But Ohio State forced overtime and escaped with a 30-23 victory at Camp Randall Stadium. The previous matchup between the two teams resulted in Ohio State drubbing Wisconsin 59-0 in the 2014 Big Ten title game.
Given that a playoff berth is at stake, what happened in the Big Ten title game last season, and the team Wisconsin is playing, there will be no shortage of motivation for the Badgers defense to excel.
“I’m expecting them to come out and think they’re just going to beat us because they go to Ohio State,” Tindal said. “They just say they’re better than us. … They expect that they’re going to dominate us. We can’t let that happen.”
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