If there is a hallmark of the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers defense, it is an extreme ability to make big plays no matter what the situation.
Have the offense throw an untimely interception deep in its own territory? How about a pick-six to pick you up.
Find yourself pinned back due to a bad punt or missed field goal? How about a turnover or a three-and-out for some help right back?
The point is, whatever the situation has been, usually the defense has risen to the occasion or created opportunities to kill off any chance for the opponent.
“Whenever we take the field our mentality is the same – just stop them,” said senior Alec James. “No matter if it is off a turnover or anything – it is the same every time. We just go out there and do our job no matter where the ball is or what the situation is.”
It’s no coincidence this killer instinct is coming out at the same time as new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard takes over either.
A look back at the Wisconsin and NFL career of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should tell you how unsurprising that attitude is. Leonhard was a big-play kind of guy, leaving Wisconsin as a three-time All-American in large part because he came up big when the defense needed him most.
He left Wisconsin tied for the most career interceptions with 21 and made 281 total tackles from his safety position in a far less aggressive defense back in his day.
But, that was then and today Leonhard is coaching a defense that is as aggressive as they come.
Wisconsin did it in multiple situations on Saturday, helping to lead the Badgers to its 38-13 Homecoming victory.
There was the opening drive pick-six and a 1st and goal at the 5-yard line stand. There were sacks when the Terps were getting rolling on the ground and opportune hits galore.
Maryland didn’t get off to a good start, but that was due to Wisconsin’s defense ramping up pressure to start to the game.
Junior College transfer Andrew Van Ginkel put pressure up the middle on Terps quarterback Max Bortenschlager. That resulted in a bad throw being released right in to the waiting arms of linebacker T.J. Edwards.
He took it 54 yards for a defensive touchdown.
But, it wasn’t just his pick-six to start the game that mattered. Edwards put up five tackles and also broke up a pass to go along with his pick-six.
Edwards has been a leader on this defense for a while, but this season he’s stepped up as more than just a tackling machine. He’s second on the team with 38 tackles, but also has three interceptions, three pass break ups and a sack to his name.
“T.J. is a really good football player,” said Chryst following Saturday’s win over Maryland. “I think what I’ve enjoyed seeing is that he doesn’t mind putting — being one of those guys to spark our team. Not just our defense.”
Wisconsin’s defense also stepped up when called upon just a few plays later. Maryland took over at the Badgers 5-yard line following a fumble by running back Jonathan Taylor.
Many believed that was six points waiting. The Badgers defense wasn’t amongst that crowd though, and it fed off the difficult situation in front of them.
Instead of six points, it was three unsuccessful plays and a chip-shot field goal.
“We just had to step up and make a play,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Like I said, the possession wasn’t over just because they started on the five. It doesn’t mean they have to get six. We just stuck in there, made a couple of plays, and finished them off in the red zone.”
Clearly the Wisconsin defense of 2017 is loving competing in the big moments, and most importantly they are winning a lot in those moments.
“I think they’re good defense,” Chryst said. “I think the coaches give them a good plan, but I think they relish those moments.”
Wisconsin’s schedule may not impress many, but the defense certainly has taken any challenge personally. They’ve also risen to nearly every challenge and come out ahead.
If there’s any indicator of just how Leonhard has impacted this group, it is in the confidence to make the big plays when your team needs them most.
Let’s see if that confidence can spill over as the schedule finally gets tougher.