Nov. 8, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- Last season, the Badgers had 15 interceptions and 26 return yards.
Last Saturday, the Badgers had three interceptions and 76 return yards.
More significantly, they had a Pick Six.
When UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus picked off Purdue’s Sean Robinson and returned the interception 36 yards for a touchdown, it was the first Pick Six in five years for the Badgers.
The last time it happened was Oct. 22, 2005, when Jack Ikegwuonu stepped in front of a Curtis Painter throw and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown in a 31-20 rout of Purdue at Camp Randall.
In that same game, UW defensive back Roderick Rogers returned a Painter interception 84 yards for a touchdown. Painter, like the aforementioned Robinson, was making his first career start.
Nobody abused the Boilermakers more than cornerback Jamar Fletcher, who victimized Drew Brees with interception returns for TDs in 1998 and 1999. During the 2000 season, Fletcher, a former prep quarterback, set a school record with 179 return yards on seven interceptions.
Besides the Fenelus pick and score Saturday, middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean had an interception and a return of 14 yards, and outside linebacker Mike Taylor had an interception and a return for 26 yards.
Last season’s longest return was 13 yards (by St. Jean at Ohio State).
There is a skill in transitioning from defense to offense after a turnover. In the first half at Purdue, an aggressive and alert Fenelus scooped up a fumble and returned it 48 yards to the Purdue 27.
“The whole defense responded in a good way,” said UW secondary coach Chris Ash. “Guys were looking for blocks and trying to finish, they were trying to score. That’s what we preach all the time. It’s not just about getting a takeaway, it’s about scoring afterwards.”
What’s the bane of all quarterbacks?
Deflections and overthrows.
That leads to more interceptions than anything else.
Fenelus and Taylor reacted to deflections, while a Scott Tolzien overthrow resulted in a pick for the Badger quarterback in the first half. St. Jean’s interception came on a bad read by Robinson.
“In my opinion, when you get takeaways on defense, a lot of it is because you’re in the right spot and you took advantage of an offensive mistake,” Ash said. “Whether the receiver doesn’t catch the ball or you get it on the rebound or it’s thrown a little left or a little right by the quarterback, if you’re in the right spot and getting a great break and pursuing the ball, you can take advantage of those mistakes.”
All three of Wisconsin’s picks came in the second half.
What accounted for the slow start?
“It didn’t seem like we had a lot of urgency at the start of the game,” Ash said. “We were kind of ho-hum. When it happens, it’s our jobs as coaches to kind of light a fire under them to get them going.
“The way I look at it, we just came off two huge back-to-back games and some people come out of bye weeks differently. For whatever reason, we came out a little bit sluggishly.
“It was hard to get fired up like we were against Ohio State and Iowa. We put a lot in those games. Once we finally got going, the end result was good, it was positive.
“We’ve got to get the guys to realize that great teams play at the same level all the time.”
Ash admitted that “we just weren’t very good” on Purdue’s scoring drives in the first half. “But in the second half,” he said, “we played a lot faster and made some plays and it made a difference.”
Fenelus, in particular, drew praise for his overall performance. “He probably had his biggest game of the season,” Ash said. “He played at a pretty high level Saturday.”
What has been the difference in Fenelus’ makeup this season?
“Consistency and confidence in himself,” Ash said. “He understands that he can be a good player if he plays consistently and use his techniques. He competes all the time.”
Reflective of his competitiveness was Fenelus’ reluctance to leave the game after he came up limping following a stop. “He just wanted to keep playing,” Ash surmised. “He never mentioned anything. He just wanted to keep going. If they don’t say something, I don’t ask.”
The Badgers will now turn their attention to Saturday’s opponent, Indiana. From this standpoint, Ash should be well-versed on the Hoosiers’ “Pistol” whereby the quarterback and tailback are stacked in a hybrid shotgun formation.
“Very similar to what I saw every day at Iowa State,” said Ash, who was the secondary coach of the Cyclones last season. The Iowa State spread offense featured some of the Pistol schemes.
“What they’re trying to do,” Ash said of the Hoosiers, “is get one-on-one matchups and they have good receivers who can take advantage of people. They really work your underneath coverage with a lot of short, quick passes against linebackers and they try to work them in space.”
Speed in space.
That would be the objective of all spread attacks.
“The biggest difference this week,” Ash said, “is that Indiana is in a spread to throw, while Purdue wasn’t a throwing team and used the spread to run it.”
Although Indiana quarterback Ben Chappell is not a running threat (36 carries for a net 11 yards), he’s very poised and accurate (63.8 percent). He has thrown for 18 touchdowns in nine games.
The Hoosiers have five receivers with 20 or more catches, including 6-foot-5 Damarlo Belcher, who has 65 catches; 6-3 Tandon Doss, who has 47, and 6-3 Terrance Turner, who has 45.
“Our priorities in the secondary are the same for every game,” Ash said of the challenge of facing bigger receivers. “One of the things we have to do is deny long plays, big plays, explosive plays. And we can do that by having great pursuit and tackling and by being in the right position. We want to keep the receivers in front of us and the keep the ball inside of us and push it back to our pursuit.”
Tackling in the open field is always an emphasis.
“There are two types of coaches,” Ash opined. “There are innovators and there are guys who are executors. We want to be executors here. And part of being an executor is that you have to get off blocks and be able to tackle. It has nothing to do with the schemes that we employ. We want to be able to read our keys, get off blocks, run to the ball, and tackle. We emphasize those things every day.”