Wisconsin’s defense searching for answers, patience amid season-opening turnover drought

MADISON, Wis. — When Luke Fickell rewatched Wisconsin’s defensive performance against Washington State, he found himself with no shortage of missed turnover opportunities to present to his players. Any one of a half-dozen plays could have altered the course of the game in an eventual 31-22 defeat. Instead, the Badgers’ defense consistently came up empty.

Fickell didn’t even need to go very far into the game film to make his point. On Washington State’s first drive, he showed players three would-be turnover chances in the first eight plays:

• A second-and-13 snap by center Konner Gomness that sailed over quarterback Cameron Ward’s head, bounced once right back into Ward’s hands and resulted in an incomplete pass with Badgers linebackers Jake Chaney and Darryl Peterson barreling down on Ward.

• A third-and-13 dump-off pass to tailback Nakia Watson in which Fickell highlighted the ball “sticking completely out to the side” that ended in inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta tracking him down from behind but not being able to get a piece of the ball.

• A third-and-8 in which cornerback Ricardo Hallman broke in front of a Ward pass up the left sideline intended for receiver Kyle Williams but couldn’t hang on to a diving interception attempt.

“I tell the guys all the time: When you’re on the road in particular, you’ve got to make things happen,” Fickell said. “You can’t just hope that ball bounces our way.”

A combination of bad luck and poor execution has led to a most unusual situation for Wisconsin.

The Badgers have zero turnovers forced through two games for the first time in a season since 2012, when they went three games without generating a takeaway. Those are the only two seasons since at least 1995 in which that has occurred.

Wisconsin ranks next-to-last in the FBS in turnover margin at minus-5, tied with New Mexico State, UTEP, Arizona and Arkansas State. The only team worse is Nebraska at minus-6. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that none of those teams have a winning record. Only Wisconsin and Arizona are .500 among those programs at this stage. Wisconsin is one of eight FBS teams that has yet to force a turnover.

“We’re oh-fer on two games, and that’s tough,” Fickell said. “That’s tough to overcome a lot of those situations. You’ve got to manufacture everything. You’ve got to get every stop.”

Wisconsin (1-1) will attempt to change that when it plays host to Georgia Southern (2-0) on Saturday at 11 a.m. CT. The Eagles have turned the ball over four times, which ranks tied for 92nd in the FBS.

Through two games, Wisconsin’s defense has been a mixed bag. The Badgers were on their heels against Washington State and allowed 17 points across three first-half drives. During various stretches, there were coverage breakdowns and missed assignments on quarterback containment. Twice during the game, the Badgers sent too many defenders onto the field as confusion reigned.

Despite those issues, Wisconsin stayed within one possession. The Badgers forced punts on five drives sandwiched around a halftime kneel-down. But with the game hanging in the balance and facing a 24-22 deficit, they couldn’t get off the field as the Cougars went 57 yards in 10 plays to score the final touchdown. Forcing one turnover could have made the difference in the outcome.

“It’s a need,” Badgers safety Hunter Wohler said. “You can’t win games against good teams without getting takeaways. I mean, you can. But it’s very hard. We need those takeaways. The way to get those is by playing fast, playing confident, trusting yourself and not worrying about making mistakes. Everyone’s going to make mistakes, and it ain’t always going to be perfect.

“It’s how you go about your business and you put enough time in the film room and you see something, you go make a play. I think as a defense as a whole, we need to start doing that better. And obviously we need to create turnovers and takeaways, give our offense the ball in better field position and flip the momentum and the atmosphere of the game.”

In general, Wisconsin’s defenses under Jim Leonhard were opportunistic. Over his six seasons as defensive coordinator from 2017 to ’22, the Badgers forced 132 turnovers (87 interceptions and 45 fumbles). That comes out to an average of 22 turnovers forced per season and 1.8 per game.

There is a well-worn phrase in football that turnovers come in bunches, which highlights the idea that just one can create momentum that carries throughout a season. Chaney said he is a believer in that idea after what happened during his freshman season in 2021 under Leonhard. Wisconsin had just four takeaways through its first six games. The next week, Wisconsin forced five turnovers in a victory against Purdue and tallied 20 takeaways total over the team’s final seven games.

“Turnovers definitely have to be on your mind,” Chaney said. “But if you’re only playing for turnovers, a lot of things can go south and sideways. I think just doing your job at a high level, those opportunities will definitely come. I think we’re getting there. We’ve just got to keep on playing our brand, and it’ll show up eventually.”

Wisconsin is in the midst of an adjustment under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, but his system has produced plenty of success. During Tressel’s first season running Cincinnati’s defense in 2021, which ended in a trip to the College Football Playoff, no team in the country notched more turnovers than the Bearcats’ 34.

Of course, that team had bona fide NFL talent, including defensive backs Sauce Gardner and Coby Bryant, linebackers Bryan Cook and Darrian Beavers and defensive linemen Myjai Sanders and Curtis Beavers. Linebacker Dashawn Pace, a future NFL Draft pick, led that team with four interceptions as a sophomore. Cincinnati ranked tied for 43rd nationally with 20 turnovers under Tressel last season.

Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t possess that volume of pro talent, and Tressel and his staff still are trying to figure out the best rotations for the unit. Seven defensive linemen played snaps against Washington State, ranging from Gio Paez’s 40 snaps to Cade McDonald’s two snaps. Safety Preston Zachman replaced an ineffective Kamo’i Latu early in the second quarter. Cornerbacks Alexander Smith and Nyzier Fourqurean essentially split snaps in the opener, but Smith played 62 of the 68 snaps at the position in Week 2.

A few players have emerged as potential playmakers. Wohler, Njongmeta, Peterson and outside linebacker Jeff Pietrowski each have been credited with two quarterback hurries. Three players — Njongmeta, Chaney and defensive lineman James Thompson Jr. — have multiple tackles for loss. Wohler leads the team with 24 tackles. But the game-changing turnovers remain elusive.

“This is what the coaches tell us: Do your job exceptionally well consistently,” Njongmeta said. “Keep doing your job exceptionally well consistently. The ball is going to come your way. You’re going to knock something loose, you’re going to get a pick, you’re going to force a fumble. Obviously, it helps when forcing fumbles in particular, punching it out.

“Just because you punch at the ball doesn’t meant you’re going to get it out. But the only way you get the ball out is by punching the ball. At the end of the day, you’ve got to make sure you do your job exceptionally well first. The rest will happen.”

Wisconsin had three more notable turnover opportunities fall by the wayside during the second half against Washington State. The Cougars were backed up to their own 1-yard line on the first play of the third quarter, when Watson fielded a handoff and lost the ball as he ran behind his right tackle. It popped right into the hands of Ward, who threw the ball away just as outside linebacker C.J. Goetz wrapped him up by the legs.

Two plays later, on third-and-4 from the 7-yard line, the center again snapped the ball over Ward’s head. It bounced three times before Ward gathered the ball off the ground and threw it away for an incompletion as Njongmeta leveled him.

Then, with Washington State clinging to a lead in the fourth, Njongmeta dropped into coverage on a third-and-6 and nearly got his left hand on a Ward pass that zipped by him for an 8-yard completion and a first down. The Cougars would go on to score the touchdown that put the game out of reach.

“I think I was half a step late,” Njongmeta said after the game. “But coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

Fickell said his message to the team was to keep its poise and not panic. The Badgers hope that approach will allow takeaways to happen sooner rather than later.

“All of a sudden, you feel like we’ve got to get turnovers, so now we’re like looking for the ball and we’re staring at the ball and we’re not doing the things that we’re supposed to do,” Fickell said. “That’s why as a coach, you can’t overemphasize them. We set standards in the things we do to start the season. We continue to stick with them. And you’ve just got to tell them, you’ve got to have confidence that they’re going to come.

“There’s little fundamental things that we’ve got to do better. But when they’re there, when the ball is on the ground, now we’ve got to make sure we’re in a position to capitalize. And that has a lot to do with just the effort and the attitude that I think we’ve got. We just haven’t found a way to get those things in our favor, whether it’s knocking it loose or making it bounce our way.”

(Photo: James Snook / USA Today)

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