COLLEGE PARK, MD. – Being a cornerback is a straight forward job for junior Sojourn Shelton.
While Wisconsin’s linebackers and safeties have a deep playbook of calls and reads to follow, Shelton knows his main role is coverage, especially of the one-on-one variety, and that his responsibility is to shut down his side of the field.
“Whatever coverage you are in, even though we can toy around with it sometimes, you are responsible for man coverage,” said Shelton. “You’ve got to be prepared.”
With three games to go in the regular season, there’s little debate that the old Shelton has shown up for the Badgers.
After a down sophomore season, Shelton’s mind is much clearer. Playing within himself, Shelton has 25 tackles through nine games (he’s on pace to come close to his season high of 36) and has been part of a UW defense that has suffocated offenses.
“I’m just playing confident and trusting myself,” said Shelton. “That’s something Coach Chryst always tells me before the game. Every time I go into the game I try to go in there with that mindset.”
A prime example would be Wisconsin’s 48-10 win over Rutgers last weekend. The Scarlet Knights didn’t have premier receiver Leonte Carroo, but the Badgers took away seemingly every option for quarterback Chris Laviano. Laviano entered the game leading the Big Ten with a completion percentage of 67.2 and ranked third with an efficiency mark of 148.9 but was held to 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) passing for 31 yards and a 32.9 pass efficiency rating.
“To be able to hold those guys to 82 yards, that’s pretty big,” said Shelton. “Especially for a team like Rutgers that had been throwing the ball around. They didn’t have their top guy but they had some guys who were pretty good and presented problems. As a defense we communicated and played together, which made everything a lot easier.”
Everything has appeared easy for Wisconsin since the opening loss to Alabama. Since giving up 35 points to the Crimson Tide, the Badgers have surrendered an average of just 8.0 points per contest. Wisconsin’s 11.0 points per game is the best in the nation, as opposing offenses have scored six touchdowns against UW’s defense over the last eight games.
To dissect that number even further, 24 of the 61 points scored against Wisconsin in conference play has come as a result of a short field following a turnover. UW also has allowed only three passing touchdowns all season and only one over 18 yards.
“It shows how we are as a unit,” said Shelton. “We play together, we communicate well and even if someone does go out we have someone fill in. There’s never any drop off. Those guys understand that they aren’t out here by themselves. There’s 10 other dudes out here that are ready to answer questions and get it fixed.”
There’s still plenty of room for growth with the defense, especially for Shelton. He dropped an easy interception in the end zone against Illinois that led to a field goal and says he missed another opportunity for one against the Scarlet Knights.
No cornerback has had an interception since Shelton had one against Indiana in November 2013, something Shelton is determined to change.
When Wisconsin (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) takes on Maryland (2-6, 0-4) here at Byrd Stadium this afternoon, the Badgers will be facing a program that has thrown 23 interceptions, five more than any other team in the FBS entering the week. The Terps’ 28 turnovers rank dead last out of 128 FBS teams.
A year after finishing with 17 turnovers, ranking them 94th in the FBS, Wisconsin has 13 turnovers this season (59th in the country) and have six interceptions, matching last year’s total.
Shelton would love nothing more to add to that total.
“I might not have the picks, but I do have four pass breakups,” said Shelton. “Of course those are breakups because I dropped the pick. It’s about me making those plays, and that’s one of the things I’ve got to get over. I’m leaving those opportunities out there. The end of the season is coming up and my time here is getting limited. I just want to be a great player here at this school.”
“At the end of the day, that’s the ultimate goal,” said Shelton. “It’s not about myself. It’s about us getting wins and putting us in the best possible position at the end of the season.”