Linebackers flying to the ball. Four first-half three-and-outs. Three points allowed. The University of Wisconsin defense, with seven new starters, looked like its old self Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
The times when the Badgers’ defense most closely replicated last year’s unit, however, came during the only possessions Western Kentucky actually threatened to find the end zone. The Hilltoppers made four second-half trips to the red zone and left Madison without scoring a single touchdown.
UW’s opponent red zone touchdown percentage last season (31.43) ranked as the third-best mark among FBS teams over the last 10 years. The gap between the Badgers and Troy, who ranked second nationally in 2017 at 43.18 percent, was greater than the difference between Troy and the 40th-ranked defense in that category.
“I personally take pride in that,” safety D’Cota Dixon said. “I know our defense takes pride in that. I know our team takes pride in that. There’s a standard. It’s been here before I was here. When you’ve got a new group and a new team, you’ve got to reset the standard and prove it all over again.
“It was definitely fun to see that we could do that - get ourselves in some situations and then get ourselves out of it. That shows a lot of maturity as a defense, too.”
That standard Dixon spoke of reaches back to at least 2013.
In four of the past five years, UW allowed opponents to score a touchdown on less than 45 percent of red zone trips and ranked in the top five nationally for total red zone touchdowns allowed.
“I think it has a lot to do with playing good defense, but I just think you kind of feel that momentum shift, and you want to be the unit to stop it,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “It’s huge when you can stop a team from getting in the end zone. Obviously, you never want them to, but when you get in the red zone, you know things have to pick up and you’ve got to make that stop.”
On the second half’s first drive Friday, redshirt freshman safety Scott Nelson blew a coverage that allowed Western Kentucky’s Jacquez Sloan to break free for a 48-yard catch to the UW 9-yard line. The Hilltoppers only managed three points.
Over the next two defensive possessions, cornerback Faion Hicks intercepted a pass on his own 3-yard line and the Badgers made a fourth-down stop after Western Kentucky recovered a fumble on UW’s 18.
Midway through the fourth quarter, safety Eric Burrell forced a fumble from Hilltoppers quarterback Davis Shanley on the 1-yard line before inside linebacker Chris Orr recovered.
“What’s fun about the game is none of that carries over,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I think what leads you to that is guys stepping up, making plays, continuing to play. Some teams, especially that first drive of the second half, you give up two chunk plays and they let the previous play affect them.
“I think experience of having been in those (situations) and having success helps, but you have to do it. So it was good this game for this year’s defense to do it. It doesn’t guarantee you anything going forward, but it’s an experience, and it’s something you can build off of.”
As Chryst said, there are no guarantees UW’s young defense keeps this up over the course of the season. The Badgers have a long track record of doing so, though, and they know what impact those type of stops can produce.
Edwards said the effect of a red-zone stop can extend beyond just the points you save off the scoreboard. The entire flow and momentum of a game can change with one possession near the goal line.
“Sometimes, when they get down there and they do score, you can kind of just feel it get taken out of the stadium,” Edwards said. “But when you stop them, the juice keeps going and you just kind of keep that feel going. It’s really important to what we do.”