MADISON, Wis. — Members of Wisconsin’s secondary have heard they’re not experienced enough to be elite-level defensive backs. They are aware that only one of four players on the field started any games before this year. They recognize questions remain after shutting down two overmatched opponents to open the season.
They are also tired of having to defend themselves off the field. The secondary is ready for a challenge. And with players expected to face one this week, their message is simply to bring it on. There is plenty of talent to show off, and they intend to do so on the big stage.
“Media, people on the outside are always going to say something,” Badgers cornerback Peniel Jean said. “At the start of the season, people were questioning us. We did well the first game and then they questioned us again before Tennessee Tech and we did well. So there’s always going to be some type of stigma between our secondary saying we’re not doing well. This is going to be a good week for us to prove who we are and what we’re capable of doing.”
Wisconsin’s secondary will endure its first real test of the season Saturday night against Arizona State — a team with the talent and scheme to successfully throw the ball around the field.
Arizona State is coming off a 55-0 victory against Sacramento State in which Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly completed 23 of 31 passes for 300 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Five different players caught a pass of at least 24 yards.
Consider that Wisconsin’s defense has yet to surrender a passing play of at least 20 yards in two games. UMass’ longest passing play went for 19 yards, while Tennessee Tech did not record a pass of longer than 14 yards.
Arizona State likely will try to stretch the field and take advantage of the back end, particularly if Wisconsin’s front seven continues its dominance at the line of scrimmage. No run has gone for longer than 11 yards against Wisconsin thus far.
“That’s their gameplan,” said Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton, the team’s only true freshman starter. “That’s what they like to do. They like to throw the ball. I wouldn’t expect them to change anything just because of how we started out or whatever the case may be. I think everybody in the secondary is ready for the ball to be aired out and just trying to truly make plays when the ball is in the air.”
Kelly ranks 18th nationally in passing yards per game (300.0) and fifth in passing efficiency through one game this season. A year ago, he set the ASU school record for most consecutive completions in a single game (18), finished ninth in the country in passing efficiency, broke the school record for completion percentage (.671) and finished second in program history for single-season touchdowns (29).
Kelly said “explosive plays” would be a key to the game and that the Sun Devils’ dynamic offense could create issues for Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense.
“With the three-down that they’re doing, I think we have some good lanes and leverage on their front seven,” he said. “I love our game plan and using our offensive line and our running backs. And they’ve got to stop our outside with the speed and the receivers we have.”
Badgers strong safety Dezmen Southward, the only returning starter in the secondary, has adamantly defended his teammates, openly calling Wisconsin’s defense one of the best in the country.
After pitching two consecutive shutouts to open the season — and ranking No. 1 nationally in passing defense (162.5 yards) — Southward can safely say his talk wasn’t false bravado.
“No, I honestly wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it,” Southward said. “The reason I said all the things I said is because I’ve worked with those guys through winter conditioning, summer conditioning, spring ball, all through fall camp. What I saw were a bunch of guys who can play football, who understood the game, who wanted to learn, who were hungry to get better and would do anything it took to get better.
“And I think it’s just the beginning of what are things to come for our season for the rest of our secondary. These guys can play football. I don’t think that should be overshadowed by the fact that they haven’t played as much football as some of us.”
If the secondary plays well on Saturday, it will be tough to overlook that group any longer. And players are ready to prove their mettle.
“People don’t understand the hard work that we truly do put out here,” Shelton said. “Yes, we may be young. But we have put plenty of hours in working hard and practicing. I think as we move along down the road, people and teams will see that Wisconsin’s secondary is serious.”
FOXSportsArizona.com’s Tyler Lockman contributed to this story