MADISON - A week after holding the pro-style LSU offense to 257 total yards, No.10 Wisconsin knew it would face a spread look from Akron that would challenge them differently.
A high-tempo scheme that predicates itself on rhythm, the Zips offered some impressive receivers, a former Buckeye at running back and a dual-threat quarterback that earned MAC Offensive Player of the Week honors in its season opener.
Different offense to face, but same dominating results as the last week.
The Badgers’ defense contained and suffocated their opponents’ quick spread attack, only allowing 224 yards while making key plays to thwart any momentum initially gained by Akron in a 54-10 blowout win at Camp Randall Stadium.
“When it comes down to it, we just play hard-nosed football,” sophomore nose guard Olive Sagapolu said. “We play physical, our defense is known for it, so coming out the week, we just had the mentality to have fun, play the ball and knock anybody who’s in the way.”
Wisconsin (2-0) asserted itself early and didn’t look back from there. In five plays in the first quarter, Akron (1-1) only gained four yards. Two of the Zips’ three first series ended with quick three-and-outs. The other one only took two plays to get them off the field and resulted in points to put UW up 9-0.
On a second-and-11 from inside its own one-yard line, Akron quarterback Thomas Woodson felt pressure from the outside, notably by redshirt junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Kept inside a collapsing pocket, defensive end Alec James registered the sack and the safety.
“I can’t remember what the call was, but I remember the offensive line slid pretty hard and I just kind of back-doored it,” James said. “My teammates did a great job of having pressure on the quarterback and stepping up. I was the lucky one there to make the play.”
The final stats may not show the full dominance. Wisconsin held Akron to one third down conversion on 10 attempts, forcing five three-and-outs. The Badgers were credited with four sacks and six tackles for loss against a quarterback that threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns last week. Most importantly, the defense only gave up a field goal.
Woodson only completed 9-of-19 passes for 108 yards while arguably the Zips’ top target, wide receiver Jerome Lane, caught only three passes for 43 yards. JoJo Natson was also held to three catches for 44 yards after scoring three touchdowns last week.
“I felt like we manned up and did what we had to do,” junior cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “We’re big on technique and feel like if we stay within our technique, we’re athletic enough to make plays. Just stay within our technique like Coach (Jim) Leonhard teaches every day, and just go out there and make it easy.”
“They had the ball up a lot in the air,” Tindal continued, when asked about the differences between UW’s opponents. “I felt like they had more versatile receivers. LSU had two big receivers but Akron had receiver after receiver just coming in and running their plays.”
Believe it or not, Wisconsin wasn’t perfect. The Badgers surrendered 147 yards in the second quarter and a 38-yard run by Warren Ball spurred by the former Ohio State back breaking tackles in the front seven. Fortuitously, Tindal chased Ball down from behind and punched the ball loose. Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton recovered, and Wisconsin would eventually score on that next offensive drive.
“I just saw he had the ball kind of loose, wasn’t really securing it,” Tindal acknowledged, “so I was going to go for the strip right here.”
The drive thereafter, Lane caught a 27-yard pass over junior cornerback Natrell Jamerson to the UW 38. The secondary stepped up yet again when redshirt senior safety Leo Musso came down with an interception.
“It just kind of comes down to our front seven doing a great job getting after the quarterback,” Musso said. “I haven’t really seen it on film yet because of that next-play mentality—kind of happens and you just move on. But I think that’s kind of the product of a great front seven and the guys on the outside doing their jobs. I kind of get the easy job to go and make a play.”
Wisconsin was back to normal from that point forward. Watt registered a tackle for no gain then a sack on consecutive plays to help force a three-and-out on Akron’s first offensive possession of the third quarter. The Badgers only allowed 18 yards in that quarter and 55 in the final stanza.
“It was the little things that we had to work on coming out of the first half,” Sagapolu admitted, “but when we go out, went out to take them down and that’s what we did.”
Through two games, Wisconsin has allowed only 481 yards and conversions on just 3 of 20 third-down situations. And of the 24 points given up, UW’s defense has only been directly responsible for 10 of them.
It’s still not enough.
“We’re a defense who’s always hungry to get better,” Musso said. “We’ll never tell you that we played our best game. There’s always things we can improve on. But I think as we become one, it’s all about the communication and how much fun we have out there, and I think that’s what everybody is seeing.”