MADISON, Wis. — When Joe Ferguson reflects on his Wisconsin football career, he sees two distinct differences in himself. For years, there was the player who wanted to blame everyone else for his status on the team. And then there was the player who took accountability for his actions, embraced the grind and fueled his hopes with positivity.
You can guess which method has led to Ferguson’s success.
“I definitely have been the type to blame coaches,” Ferguson said. “Really, anyone. ‘Oh, it’s the strength coach’s fault I’m not athletic enough right now to play. Our weight program sucks.’ Or, ‘My coach likes this young guy better than me. I’m way better than him.’
“But none of those things are ever true. It’s you. You control your destiny. As soon as you realize that, you give yourself a chance to be better.”
Ferguson has more than given himself a chance. In his senior season, he has become one of the most important players on Wisconsin’s defense. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound safety from Madison has amassed 6 of Wisconsin’s 19 total takeaways. He leads the Badgers with 4 interceptions, which is tied for second in the Big Ten.
Last week against Indiana, Ferguson recorded 3 takeaways to help shift the momentum in Wisconsin’s favor. He could be a major factor again when No. 8 Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) plays host to No. 20 Iowa (6-3, 3-3) at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium.
Ferguson, the grandson of Badgers athletics director Barry Alvarez, arrived as a walk-on in 2013 and appeared in four games that season before sustaining an injury that required a medical redshirt. He returned in 2014, earned a scholarship and started his first game at safety early in the season against South Florida. But for much of his career, Ferguson’s primary responsibilities came on special teams. Although he appeared in 44 career games before this season, he felt as though he wasn’t making the impact he wanted.
“A lot of games and even years, it feels like I was just kind of there,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t feel like I was contributing to the highest of my ability. And that was just a mindset thing. I wasn’t in the right place mentally, kind of blaming other people for stuff that was happening, not taking ownership of the player I’d become.
“It’s just been a journey, learning the right way to think about things and learning how to kind of approach yourself as a person and approach the situations you’re in. Just having positivity and optimism.”
Ferguson said he began to change his tune last season, and the results were noticeable to teammates. Badgers outside linebacker Leon Jacobs said former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox would often comment during practice that either Ferguson or cornerback Nick Nelson were good for a pass breakup or an interception a day.
Current defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was the defensive backs coach last season and said he saw then that Ferguson was capable of contributing because of his instincts.
“You see the athletic ability, and he’s got a nose for the ball,” Leonhard said. “He’s always been around the ball since I’ve been here. But he had kind of struggled with some health issues, and the physicality sometimes wasn’t there because he was trying to protect himself. I can’t tell you exactly when the day it was, but all of a sudden there was a big change where you see him flying down on special teams and making plays and throwing his body around. Obviously, it takes a little different mentality to do that.”
Even though Ferguson shifted his mindset last season, he said he wasn’t sure whether he would be asked to come back for his fifth year in 2017.
“Obviously I wanted to keep playing football, but playing special teams and being on scholarship as a senior, you’re kind of taking away opportunity from younger guys,” Ferguson said. “I’ve seen it since I’ve been here, when the guys are in that role as an older guy, coaches sometimes ask them not to take their fifth year, and I totally understand that. It’s what’s best for the program.”
But there was no such conversation with Ferguson this offseason. Instead, he has made the most of his final year with the program, becoming more than a special-teams contributor.
In the season opener against Utah State, Ferguson set a program record by returning an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.
He earned his second career start two weeks ago against Illinois in place of D’Cota Dixon, who missed the game with a right leg injury. Ferguson recorded a key fourth-quarter interception and returned it 37 yards after Illinois had driven to the Wisconsin 28-yard line. The pick set up a touchdown that gave the Badgers a 24-3 lead.
Ferguson was at it again during Wisconsin’s 45-17 victory against Indiana last Saturday. He recovered a fumble forced by outside linebacker Tyler Johnson at the Indiana 21 midway through the second quarter with Wisconsin trailing 10-7. The Badgers scored a touchdown less than a minute later to take a 14-10 lead.
During the fourth quarter, Ferguson came up with 2 interceptions on consecutive Indiana drives. Wisconsin scored off both turnovers to turn a 24-17 advantage into a comfortable 38-17 margin.
“He may not always have gotten that many chances in the past, but we all know Ferg, he knows what he’s doing,” Badgers safety Natrell Jamerson said. “He’s a sneaky playmaker. Nobody’s going to expect Ferg to do what he does, but we do. I never doubted Ferg at all. In the Illinois game when D’Cota couldn’t go, I knew Ferg was ready for it. He made plays. Ferg has always been making plays.”
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said Ferguson had a good spring and fall camp, which put him in position to contribute. Chryst noted that Ferguson is having fun as a senior, which is a trait that can be contagious among teammates.
Ferguson is grateful for the opportunity and shows it on the field. Now, more than ever, he can appreciate what this chance means.
“I think for a while, I’ve had the same mindset,” Ferguson said. “That’s the biggest thing. When the opportunity has come now, I think that’s paying off. It’s not like I just turned it on when they put me in the game. It starts way before that.”
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