MADISON – Ask around, the likeliest group to take a step back from the success of 2017 for Wisconsin certainly would be the defense, and it would be hard to make an argument otherwise.
Friday night at Camp Randall certainly didn’t look like Wisconsin has any plans of allowing that to be the case.
Wisconsin came into the season opener against Western Kentucky starting seven new players on defense, including four players seeing a collegiate field for the very first time. There have been question marks all offseason about how this group would fare when the season came around, and rightfully so.
Sure, the first test that this group had to face wasn’t the most difficult of the season, but there’s no doubting that Western Kentucky presented unique challenges for a unit featuring this much turnover. The fast pace offense featuring a great deal of pre-snap movement that Western Kentucky runs isn’t the easiest to handle.
Wisconsin has plenty of room to improve, no doubt, but this was a good start. It was a solid experience for guys getting their first taste of real game action like Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, and Scott Nelson. Those three will be tested plenty this season as teams will attempt to gouge the Badgers through the air.
On Friday night Wisconsin was able to limit Western Kentucky to just 167 yards passing. Forty-eight of those yards came on a pass early in the second half that Nelson said was the result of a miscommunication that he took fault for as well.
Other than that play, it would be hard to find much fault with Nelson’s debut in a Wisconsin uniform. He flew around the field, leading the team in tackles with seven and breaking up two passes. Nelson probably should have intercepted one of the passes he broke up, and did narrowly miss out at an opportunity at a sack as well.
The missed opportunity to create a turnover for Nelson brought one of the more curious moments of the night. After the play was blown dead and the ball hit the ground Nelson kept running. He kept running and didn’t stop until he hit the end zone, which was approximately 40 yards away from where the play ended.
“I really don’t know, whenever I don’t make a play I just end up running,” Nelson said. “Hopefully you don’t see that too much more. A couple people asked me about that when I came off the field. When I’m out there, I don’t know what I’m thinking.”
Despite the unnecessary extra yardage on his legs, the young safety has plenty to be happy about.
“I think it was good. There’s definitely a lot that we can tighten up,” Nelson said. “Personally, there’s definitely a lot that I can tighten up. Lot of tackling, catching the ball, communication stuff. But it was good, we got our feet wet, we’re in, and we’ll only get better from here.”
Aside from Nelson’s impressive debut, Hicks added an interception in the red zone for the Badgers in his debut. Wisconsin’s secondary had a part in each of the Badgers’ two turnovers, as Eric Burrell was credited with a forced fumble – again in the red zone – that was recovered by linebacker Chris Orr.
The thing that most resembled the 2017 Wisconsin defense on Friday night was the ability to stand up in the red zone defensively. So many times last season the Badgers would be faced with a sudden-change situation leaving them in a difficult position.
They experienced one against Western Kentucky following a Jonathan Taylor fumble in the third quarter. Western Kentucky took over inside the red zone, gained four yards, and failed to convert on fourth down.
The names and faces may have changed, but the result looked just like last year for Wisconsin. Tougher tests lie ahead, and time will tell whether or not this defense will be quite as good, but Friday was a promising start.