Finishing sixth in the country in turnover margin at plus-14, the Badgers were even better in conference play, as their plus-15 finish was tied for fifth best in conference history since 1980. Creating 25 turnovers that helped push the Badgers to Pasadena, the success started in the second half of their first game.
During the opener against UNLV last season, Wisconsin was jump started to a 41-21 victory when defensive end J.J. Watt forced a UNLV fumble at the beginning of the third quarter that was scooped up by Aaron Henry and returned 21 yards for a touchdown.
This season's opener against UNLV yielded a better final score, letting one to think the Badgers improved defensively from last year's opener at a first glance of comparing the numbers, but that did not hold true.
During Thursday's game, the Badgers' defense created no turnovers despite two fumbles by quarterback Caleb Herring in the second quarter.
"I felt that we had a couple of opportunities but we didn't take advantage of them," said Henry. "One day in practice, we were all trying to strip the ball but when we got into the game, not many guys were still doing that. I think opportunities were there. We just didn't take advantage of them … Sometimes it's like that at games where there is no turnover."
Henry knows all about the ebbs and flows of turnovers. After forcing only seven turnovers through the team's first eight games (.875 per game) in '10, Wisconsin forced 16 in the final five games (3.2 per game), including returning three for touchdowns.
"Turnovers are huge," said Henry. "Last year at first, people were telling us we needed to have more turnovers. Even our defensive coordinator was saying that we need more turnovers. Guys were trying to get turnovers, but I mean, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way. I think in the second half of the season they just started to come out of the blue. So I think for us, we need to just keep ripping at the ball every chance we get. From this game on out, I think whenever the opportunity presents itself, it's up to us to capitalize on it."
Improvements are in order for the Badgers as Saturday as Oregon State approaches. In order to create turnovers, the first task, according to co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge, is to secure the tackle and put pressure on the quarterback.
"You take a look at our only forced fumble. David Gilreath was behind the quarterback, secured the tackle and went for the strip at the same time," said Partridge. "If you are one-on-one with a ball carrier, you have to secure the tackle and then the guys that come to the ball have to rip out the ball."
Securing the tackle has been the big emphasis in the days of practice leading to Saturday, considering the amount of extra yards the Badgers gave UNLV by not securing the tackle.
"They have been talking about that the whole week, tackling, tackling, tackling," said Henry. "If we can make a tackle the guy makes a yard. But if you miss a tackle and the guy picks up 8-10 yards after, we can't live with that. We need to make sure we fly to the ball as a defense."
Last year, Watt demonstrated pressure off the end from start to finish. In addition to his forced fumble against UNLV, Watt had four tackles, .5 yards for loss and broke up a career-high three passes. Even with Watt gone, Wisconsin wants more.
"I don't think we created enough (pressure) last year with J.J.," Partridge said. "I am greedy. We saw some examples with Louis (Nzegwu) and (Gilbert) getting pressure, which is what we would expect. I was really hoping we would see more pressure from the middle. We don't need them to do something we haven't been training the whole time. They need to stay with their fundamentals and take care of their job, (which) will lead to production. If they try to do too much, the opposite effect will happen."
One of the keys to a successful game against Oregon State lies within the hands of the defense, as creating pressure on the offense will lead to the turnovers UW is seeking. After missing the boat against the Rebels, Henry's group is looking for the same production that lied within the success of last year's defense.
"For us, the most important thing is to just focus on what we do, and make sure we control the game," said Henry. "The goal is to have a great defensive game, come out well, come out on fire. For me in particular I want to be that difference maker. Anytime I'm on the field I want to be able to distinguish myself, just always blocking the ball, make turnovers, make things happen for my defensive unit."
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