Badgers defense begins season with consecutive shutouts

MADISON, Wis. — You could argue Wisconsin has played the easiest schedule in all of college football through two weeks and you wouldn’t hear much resistance. One opponent plays at the FCS level, and the other might as well be considered on the same rung.

So take that for what it’s worth. But also consider just how dominant Wisconsin’s defense has been during that stretch. During a 48-0 victory against Tennessee Tech on Saturday — the second straight shutout to begin the season — the Badgers allowed a total of 113 yards. In two games, Wisconsin is allowing just 162.5 yards per game. When players wake up on Sunday morning, that figure likely will lead the nation.

It is no wonder, then, why Badgers strong safety Dezmen Southward didn’t hesitate to call Wisconsin’s defense one of the best in the country following Saturday’s performance.

“I think we’ll continue to show that as the year goes on,” Southward said. “It’s something I said before the season started, and it’s something I’m going to stick with until I’m proven wrong. We’re one of the best defenses, and we’re one of the best because we’re smart, we have a lot of talent, we have some speed and we’re tough. We’re going to do the right things most of the time. Any time you have that, you can be one of the best in the nation.”

Wisconsin recorded consecutive shutouts for the first time since the start of the 1958 season — in a 20-0 victory against Miami (Fla.) and a 50-0 drubbing of Marquette, which hasn’t even fielded a football team since 1960. The last time Wisconsin’s defense registered two shutouts in the same season was 1998, with a 45-0 victory against Ohio and a 31-0 win against Iowa. The Badgers also became the first Big Ten team to tally consecutive shutouts since Ohio State in 2009.

“They prepared great both times,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said of his team’s performance. “It’s going to get tougher, we all know that. All you can do is play the people that are in front of you.  . . .

“It’s hard to shut people out. I’m proud of the kids. They should be excited about that because, again, that’s hard to do. It’s very difficult to get that done.”

Over the course of the first two games, opposing quarterbacks have completed 22 of 49 passes (44.8 percent) for 181 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Wisconsin’s defense swarmed to the ball on Saturday, and it began on the first play from scrimmage when Golden Eagles running back Stephen Bush fumbled. Cornerback Darius Hillary stripped the ball, and strong safety Dezmen Southward recovered at the Tennessee Tech 22-yard line.

Six plays later, Wisconsin scored its first of seven touchdowns.

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, who recorded five tackles, said the Badgers’ defense was equally vanilla on Saturday as it was against UMass in a 45-0 victory.

So what does the defense have in store next week for Arizona State and into the future?

“There’s a lot,” he said. “Just different sets, different looks, different pressures, personnel groupings. We can do a lot of different things. But you don’t just run it for fun. You run it if it’s the appropriate thing to do, so we may do the same things we’ve done the first two weeks. We may show some more.”

Running back stampede: For the second straight game — and the third time over the past four contests — three Wisconsin running backs rushed for at least 100 yards.

Once again, third-string tailback Corey Clement stole the show with the game out of reach in the second half. He carried the ball 13 times for 149 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 75-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Melvin Gordon added 140 yards and one touchdown, while James White tallied 109 yards and a score.

“It’s good for our team, good for our offense,” Gordon said. “It feels great. The competition is going to keep us on our feet. If one person slacks, that guy is chasing you. That guy is right there. You never want to be that guy that drops down the depth chart. We’re definitely going to keep on our toes, all of us playing great.”

Gordon, a redshirt sophomore, now has 1,003 career rushing yards on 104 carries for a career average per carry of 9.6. White is the NCAA’s active rushing touchdowns leader with 34. And Clement has begun his college career with 250 yards rushing on 29 carries — good for 8.6 yards per carry.

Straus shines: Derek Straus, a redshirt sophomore, made his first start at fullback in place of the injured Derek Watt. On his first drive he caught two passes, including a 4-yard touchdown from quarterback Joel Stave.

Straus appeared to be open for a second touchdown later in the first quarter, but Stave instead hit receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 6-yard touchdown, which put Wisconsin ahead 14-0.

“Abby was the first read,” Straus said. “My job was to stretch the play, so I didn’t get that window. It was a touchdown, so why would I be upset?”

Kicking game woes: Wisconsin continues to struggle to find a consistent kicker between Kyle French and Jack Russell. On Saturday, French missed an extra point try in the third quarter, which paved the way for Russell to see his first action of the season.

Russell converted both of his extra point tries, but he missed a 31-yard field goal attempt with 53 seconds remaining in the games.

The results, particularly French’s miss, did not please Andersen.

“It’s just not crisp,” Andersen said. “We’ve got to continue to improve. It all starts with me. I’m not pointing fingers at any kid. I’m not pointing a finger at any assistant coaches. I’ve got to find a way to help him and get him where he needs to be, and sometimes the best way to help people is to create competition.

“So that’s what we’ll do. There will be a competitive effort to see where it goes through the week, and we’ll continue to work with both young men. We just need to progress. We’ve got to get better. We’re going to get in a position where we’re going to have to make those kicks.”

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter