Teaching moments

Defense will learn lessons from win over Arizona

There were times in Wisconsin's 9-7 win Saturday when Arizona looked ready to paint the Badgers' vaunted defense as a house of cards. The Wildcats ran and passed the ball with a greater efficiency than Wisconsin's first two opponents. Arizona made big plays, taking advantage of blown assignments and missed tackles along the way.

When the game ended, however, the Wildcats had managed just one touchdown and 199 yards total offense. The Badgers made enough big plays of their own to win the game, dominating on third down and pressuring Arizona quarterback Kris Heavner assiduously.

On the other hand, the mistakes, however survivable, will not be taken lightly.

"Our guys are going to learn a lot from this," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "The thing I'm excited about is our defensive guys were shown that they are not where they need to be to get everything done on every snap. And we'll make those corrections."

The most conspicuous error occurred on the first and only touchdown Wisconsin has given up all season. With less than a minute left in the first half, free safety Jim Leonhard stumbled as he turned to run with receiver Mike Jefferson. The slip up allowed Jefferson to gain separation, make the catch and carry Leonhard the last few yards into the end zone.

"I slipped a little bit but I just have to play it better. Period. Footing was great out there. I made a mistake. That's all that happened. If we don't win the game I don't feel too good right now," Leonhard said.

"We didn't care," defensive end Erasmus James said of giving up the first touchdown of the season. "We wanted to get back out there. It was a little mistake. Leonhard fell on that one. It shouldn't have happened, but it did. We responded and we came out with the ‘W'"

There were other trying moments, including:

  • Two plays after a 57-yard Ken DeBauche punt pushed Arizona back to its 14, tailback Mike Bell took a toss to the left and burst to the edge with ease, picking up 34 yards before Robert Brooks forced him out of bounds.

  • Early in the third quarter, linebacker Dontez Sanders misread a play and ran right past Wildcat reserve running back Gilbert Harris, who zipped through the vacated hole for a 14-yard gain.

  • Trailing 9-7 with less than four minutes to play Arizona quickly snapped off plays covering 11, 23, 7 and 14 yards.

On the second play of that sequence, Leonhard collided with Sanders, which kept Sanders from delivering a "cut" call to mike linebacker Reggie Cribbs. The cut call is a kind of in-play audible that allows the linebackers and secondary to communicate zone responsibilities.

"I got bumped in the back by Jim so I couldn't make the cut call to Cribbs," Sanders said. "So Cribbs had let 87 [tight end Steve Fleming] go as if I was going to be there."

Harris gashed the Badgers on the next two plays.

"We were very soft one time up the middle," head coach Barry Alvarez said, referring to Harris' 14-yard run.

With first down at the Wisconsin 25, though, the Wildcats went backward. A false start penalty was followed by three more Harris runs that totaled zero yards and Nick Folk's potential game-winning 47-yard field goal attempt hooked just left of the upright.

"We had to man up on that one," James said. "We had to all get together, get focused, stay on the same page."

Straying from the page nearly cost Wisconsin.

"There were two significant mishaps on that last drive," Bielema said. "They were getting into the flow of things. I think our kids responded.

"Those two plays right there to me are way beyond anything that can teach you in those first two ball games that are going to help us win games in the future."

Aside from a few long completions from Central Florida quarterback Steven Moffett, particularly on third down plays, the Badgers' defense had seemed indestructible prior to Saturday, when a few leaks appeared.

Heavner finished 9-for-15 passing for 103 yards and the touchdown, recording the highest passer rating of any opposing quarterback this season.

Wisconsin held Central Florida tailback Alex Haynes to 56 yards on 21 carries and UNLV's Dominic Dorsey to 57 yards on 14 attempts. Arizona's Harris, though, picked up 56 on his first eight carries, finishing with 56 on 11 attempts. Bell ran for 48 yards on his first five carries, but lost five on his next four. Still, the Wildcats top three tailbacks combined for 124 yards on 27 carries.

Said Bielema: "As much as we preach it every day, as much as we're on them day in and day out about how much they need to improve and show themselves, you guys writing nice things about them and telling them that they are good... I know what's there. Those Arizona coaches know what's there. I know the Penn State coaches look at the film... this will be able to hugely help us."

It is telling that allowing just 12 first downs and 199 yards total offense is viewed as a wake-up call. The Badgers are third in the nation in scoring defense (5.33 points per game), fourth in total defense (201 yards allowed per game), No. 13 in rushing defense (73.7) and No. 7 in pass defense (127.3). Among teams that have played three games this season Wisconsin leads the nation in scoring and total defense.

"What you try to do is strive for perfection," Alvarez said. "You never can reach it in football. Regardless of how good a game looks or whatever, you always find things wrong. It's impossible but that's what you strive for and I think that's what Bret is trying to get across to his guys. We certainly can't be satisfied."

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