EAST LANSING, Mich. – The panic button had been nowhere in sight.
Minus two major contributors and coming off a shaky second half against Georgia State, members of Wisconsin’s defense had calmly and rationally explained that the mistakes leading to the big chunks of yards it gave up through the air were easily correctable, even when it was preparing for a Michigan State offense that gained over 500 yards against Notre Dame.
Were the first few games a mirage against three sputtering offenses heading into the conference opener? Far from it, signaling that these Badgers know what they’re talking about.
Asserting its dominance from the opening kickoff, Wisconsin’s unit forced four turnovers, held the Spartans running game in check and limited Michigan State to only 4-of-13 on third downs in its impressive 30-6 win at Spartan Stadium.
"Next men up mentality, lunch pail mentality, guys are going to go down,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “The next guy has got to step up, and we can't skip a beat. That's been our mentality all year so far, and will be as we keep going on throughout the season."
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s squads have been known for creating turnovers at previous programs. Through two games, Wisconsin generated five takeaways but didn’t force one against the Panthers last Saturday - keeping its adversaries in the game until the final minutes. That was not the case against the defending Big Ten champions.
In the second quarter, pressure from inside linebacker T.J. Edwards forced an errant throw from Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor, and cornerback Sojourn Shelton stepped in front for an easy interception. Six plays later, running back Corey Clement scored from one yard out to make it a 13-6 advantage.
It was foreshadowing of bigger plays to come. With the Spartans having the opportunity to tie the score at 13 in the third quarter, strong safety D'Cota Dixon got a helmet on State tailback L.J. Scott, popping the football free. Free safety Leo Musso scooped up the loose ball and returned it 66 yards to the end zone, changing the entire complexity of the game at 20-6 UW.
“It was awesome just having the guys up front and the cornerbacks leading me to the end zone,” Musso said. “I had the easy job, just picking it up and running.”
Against the Spartans, two turnovers led to 13 points and the other two in the second half suffocated any momentum the home team was trying to create for a last-ditch comeback.
“That just comes from the mentality that Coach Leonhard has put in our minds – confidence,” Shelton said. “I think it’s one thing when a coach believes in you and talks about (turnovers) so much. He believes in everybody in that group. I think as a group we’re starting to believe in each other, as far as when you see something, go get it.”
It wasn’t only the interceptions that stymied Michigan State’s offense. The Badgers’ linebackers feasted on O’Connor – making just his fourth career start – and a rebuilding offensive line, finishing with seven tackles for loss, four sacks and seven quarterback hurries. Held without a touchdown in a home game for only the second time since 2000, Michigan State averaged only 2.8 yards per carry a week after running for 260 yards. Of the Spartans 325 total yards, 206 came on their final four drives after the lead had ballooned to 30-6.
"We love to be around each other; honestly, it surprises me that other places aren't like that,” said Watt, who finished with 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. “Our coach always tells us it's not always like that. But, for us we honestly love being around each other. We're always laughing and having a great time and that makes it so much easier for us on and off of the field."
A superior effort from the Badgers’ defense silenced doubters after their performance a week ago, but they know they face another challenge at No.4 Michigan next Saturday.
“We’re a team and a unit that always looks for areas we can improve," Musso said. "You can never play the perfect game, but you try to play the best game. That’s the mentality that we have as a defensive unit. It’s a fun unit to play around.”
- Jake Kocorowski contributed to this report