"He's a former basketball player, which I don't' believe," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "I've seen him try to catch the ball."
Lucky for him, Southward's transition from the round orange ball to pigskin provided big dividends for Wisconsin's vastly improving defense. Registering his first career interception on an overthrow pass in the first quarter, Southward and his defensive teammates stunted Purdue in a 38-14 victory at Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday.
The Boilermakers' 252 yards of total offense was a season-low for a Wisconsin opponent and the lowest since Penn State managed 233 yards in last year's regular season finale, as the Badgers held the Boilermakers to less than 20 yards on nine of their next 10 drives following Southward's interception.
"That was great," said linebacker Chris Borland of the Southward interception. "It was good to see him come through on that play."
It was a sterling performance for the junior, and a slightly unexpected one considering how the game started for the secondary. In Cover 2 defense on the first offensive play, Wisconsin tried a different formation with its back seven, but a lack of pressure on Purdue quarterback Caleb Terbush and a minor miscommunication resulted in a 51-yard pass play to Antavian Edison.
TerBush scored on a one-yard quarterback keeper on the next play to give Purdue the lead 38 seconds into the game.
"We were trying something different and we didn't react the greatest in the secondary," said Southward. "After that play, we went back to what we'd been doing the whole season, and I think you saw the success in that."
After the Edison completion, Wisconsin gave up only 200 yards on the next 58 plays (3.45 per play). Remove the 81-yard run against the second-team defense, the Badgers gave up an average of 2.09 yards per play.
"I thought we got after it pretty well and were sound for most of the game," said Borland. "It wasn't a complete game. That's what we were hoping for, but a better effort than we've put forth thus far."
Added Bielema: "It's a saying that we have that, "It's not what happens in a game, it's how you react to what happens in a game.' We reacted (and) gave the right response."
Utilizing a lot of simple four-man pressures, Wisconsin held Purdue's three quarterbacks to a combined 124 passing yards and registered five sacks, the most for UW's defense since the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl.
Wisconsin also had nine tackles for loss for 49 lost yardage, one of which involved Southward bursting through the line of scrimmage and throwing a shoulder into tailback Akeem Hunt for a three-yard loss.
"Dez is athletic, smart (and) getting better," said Bielema. "He's really got a lot of ability."
If one counts the five interceptions Southward registered in Friday's walkthrough practice, the junior interception binge has allowed his confidence to grow.
"Anytime you can make a play and envision yourself making it on Saturday, it truly helps you a lot," said Southward. "We as DBs envision ourselves making tackle, defending things well and picking the ball. When it really comes to fruition, it is a great feeling, because I've seen that route a hundred times."
As for the claim by Bielema, Borland and others that he's not a very good pass catcher because of his drops, Southward tried to take the ego blow in stride.
"That's tough coming from my guys," said Southward. "I've dropped some picks in practice, but I've caught a bunch. We truly stress making plays when they come your way. I truly love the fact that I was able to make that play.
"If I keep working the same way I've been working, those plays will come to me all the time."