Shutdown secondary helps spark shutout

New-look defensive backfield successful in debut against lowly Owls offense

MADISON — Which came first – the chicken or the goose-egg? As the Temple offense ran in headless circles but not forward on Saturday, an improved Wisconsin secondary seemed pleased with its performance against the flightless Owls. While the Badger defensive backs did limit their mistakes after a tough week of practice, fans are left to wonder how much of it was growth and how much the ineptitude of the Temple attack had to do with it.

The defensive backfield came packaged as advertised. Two new starters – junior strong safety Joe Stellmacher and freshman cornerback Allen Langford – silenced any doubts as to the seriousness of the depth chart alterations made by the coaching staff on Monday.

They joined senior cornerback Brett Bell and junior free safety Roderick Rogers in a backfield crowded in week one by substitutions. A number of names appeared in the secondary against Temple as well, this time for reasons coaches are pleased about.

Defensive coordinator Bret Bielema and defensive backs coach Ron Lee spent the last week of practice stressing a return to correct technique for the secondary unit that allowed Bowling Green quarterback Omar Jacobs to light them up for 458 yards last week.

According to Lee, a dual focus for the secondary included preventing receivers from getting behind them and then finishing plays when forcing the offense to shorter routes. Langford and Bell accomplished the former and received little opportunity to practice the latter, allowing their receivers just two receptions in a first half in which Temple recorded just eleven total yards of offense. The defense as a whole allowed just 56 yards through the air in four quarters.

Langford saw the most action of any of the four starters, remaining in the game well into the second half. Defensive coordinator Bret Bielema attributed that to senior Levonne Rowan needing to come out of the game in the third quarter, but it also gave the staff a chance to see Langford play for an extended period of time on a higher stage than the practice field.

"It helped me get the flow of how a whole game goes," Langford said. "I'd never been in a whole game, so that was really good for me."

The secondary unit saw some new life in other areas as well. Just when the Madison campus thought they had finally met and learned the name of its new freshmen, two more made sure the Camp Randall crowd got to know them too.

True freshman Shane Carter entered the game early and often in nickel and dime packages, along with Rowan, who lost his starting position to Langford this week. Another youngster who saw significant time once the Badgers built their lead was redshirt freshman Jack Ikegwuonu, who also recorded a tackle against Bowling Green the previous week. Ikegwuonu saw limited action in the second quarter and replaced Bell in the second half.

As for the safety positions, both Rogers and Stellmacher proved to be starters, as the depth chart suggested. Stellmacher came out of the game in some nickel packages but played the majority of the first half. Now second on the depth chart, junior Johnny White replaced Stellmacher later on and forced a fumble in the third quarter.

Bielema said the changes posted Monday might not necessarily translate to game time. He elected to monitor performance throughout this week before deciding who would give the team the best opportunity to win. The Temple offense did not find much luck no matter who lined up in the secondary, but coaches were pleased with the performances of their newcomers.

"There were a couple of personnel changes," Bielema said. "What we wanted to do is make sure everybody understood what we needed to have happen, how they needed to do it.

"They came out and did it."

One player who did not enter the game as early was junior safety Zach Hampton, who started in the nickel package against Bowling Green but did not appear in the secondary until the second half Saturday. In place of Stellmacher, Carter joined many nickel packages at free safety. Bielema said Hampton played well but that his role on special teams factored into the decision, while Carter brought the team many positive attributes with the fresh legs of a non-special teams player.

"Shane is a good athlete," Bielema said. "He's got good range. I think he's intelligent. He's got good ball skills. He's one of those guys who can just find the ball. He's just got those natural instincts and he's got good competitive nature. That's what we like about him."

Coaches will now turn to the film rooms to analyze performances. What they find could run counter to the scoreboard, after all. The Temple quarterbacks struggled to find a rhythm and sometimes overthrew receivers the few times they got open, such as in the second quarter when Bell was beat along the sideline. Owls quarterback Mike McGann airmailed one over the head of his intended receiver.

Bielema noted that the average eye might not pick up incorrect techniques the way film does, citing a moment in week one in which Hampton made a good play that he says could have been avoided if senior linebacker Dontez Sanders had used the correct technique. Plays like that might be what the coaching staff weeds through on what was a successful afternoon for the defense.

"When we call a certain technique or a coverage, everybody needs to execute it," Bielema said. "I think today they really made a conscious effort about what their assignment was."

Areas of concern for the staff will be whether or not the defensive backs were in the correct position to make plays when necessary as well as the level of communication between teammates. With the luxury of a large lead, Wisconsin was able to match a number of different players together as the game progressed. How players performed with each other might also contribute to decisions made in practice this week.

"It gives you a chance to see who bonds well together, who works together and what combinations you can go with," Rogers said.

Numerous players agreed that this game allowed them a chance to feel more comfortable coming into their own in new roles. A home game against Michigan or Purdue a few weeks away might have provided a different scenario. While Bielema prepared the defense for a nickel attack similar to what Bowling Green showed the Badgers, Temple certainly did not operate near that caliber.

On the flip side, Alvarez did express some surprise with the lowly output of the Owls' offense. While it might be paying lip service, he said the offense was ‘still scary' on film.

"I thought that their receivers showed, a week ago, on film, that they had speed," Alvarez said. "So I was very concerned coming into this game."

Alvarez did not seem concerned coming out of it. Besides praising the secondary, he joked with reporters during an initial question and even smiled when asked about the penalty that senior Brandon Williams received for leaping into the end zone after a punt return touchdown.

"I let him slide on that one," Alvarez grinned. "I was very generous today.

"In a tight ballgame we would have had a very strong conversation."

Badger fans may not know the true face of the secondary until Chad Henne and the Michigan Wolverines travel to Madison on Sept. 24. The players do appear sure of themselves after this week, which is always a good sign.

"I think the unit as a whole played very well," Carter said. "We gained a lot of confidence back."

That might be half the battle.


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