On the lengthy list of big plays made by the University of Wisconsin defense Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, one got lost in the shuffle.
The very first one.
The 10th-ranked Badgers had fumbled the ball away on the game's first touch and two plays later Northwestern faced a third-and-1 at the 15-yard line. Hoping to grab the early momentum, the always bothersome Wildcats ran senior Justin Jackson, one of the Big Ten Conference's top tailbacks, off the left side. But UW outside linebacker Leon Jacobs wasn't about to let a first down happen, smashing into Jackson for a 1-yard loss and forcing Northwestern to settle for a field goal less than 2 minutes into the game.
"I think that was huge," inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said. "It was the first third down and it just set the tempo for how the third downs were going to go for the rest of the game."
Truer words were never spoken.
Even when the Badgers were busy beating themselves with sloppy offensive play early in the game, the defense kept UW in the game by making big play after big play to get off the field. Once the offense got itself squared away, the defense exerted its influence even more and UW sent Northwestern home with a 33-24 loss, one that included two ultimately meaningless but way-too-easy Wildcats touchdowns in the final 5:00.
"I know they scored in the last two drives, but I thought our defense did really well and kept us in the game, gave us a chance," coach Paul Chryst said. "I thought they did a tremendous job on the pass rush."
UW's formula for success was simple: Stop Jackson on the ground — he finished with 25 yards on nine carries — and get after dual-threat quarterback Clayton Thorson in the pocket. The defense executed that formula to perfection, keeping the game close in the first half and dominating in the second half until the outcome was decided.
After Jacobs set the tone by stuffing Jackson on Northwestern's first possession, the Badgers started chasing Thorson all over the field, finishing with eight sacks. Their constant pressure was the major reason the Wildcats were 3-for-15 on third-down conversions, which helped UW turn a 10-7 deficit into a 31-10 lead and, in keeping with the theme of the day, finish off Northwestern with a safety when D'Cota Dixon sacked Thorson in the end zone.
The most enlightening development for the defense was the sheer number of players who contributed big plays. Sure, outside linebacker Garret Dooley had three sacks, safety Natrell Jamerson had two interceptions, including a pick-six, and Dixon was seemingly all over the field, but in this game the big plays came from everywhere. And from everyone.
Six players — Dooley, Dixon, inside linebacker Chris Orr, end Alec James, end Isaiahh Loudermilk and Jamerson — were involved in sacks of Thorson, a three-year starter who ended with 219 yards passing but had only 107 with 10:00 to play. Jacobs had two hurries and cornerback Nick Nelson one.
Playing against a true pro-style, drop-back offense for the first time this season, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard called some creative and timely blitzes. Most of them worked and, after awhile, it became a race to the quarterback.
"It's good," James said. "We were all just hungry to make plays. I guess that's the best way to sum it up."
It didn't start out that way. Northwestern took a 10-7 lead, though both scoring drives starting in UW territory due to the bumbling early offense. In all, 22 of Northwestern's first 31 snaps came in UW's half of the field. If not for the defense, that 10-7 halftime deficit could have been much wider.
Once the Badgers took the lead early in the second half, the defense really started flexing its muscles. Dixon and Jamerson, the two safeties, played a big role in stopping the run. Prior to Northwestern's late flurry, the Badgers ended Wildcats drives with two third-and-1 stops, five third-down sacks and Jamerson's interceptions, both of which were aided by pass rushers in Thorson's face.
"It was just great play-calling and great play by the D-line and linebackers," cornerback Derrick Tindal said. "They were making it easy on us (defensive backs). I felt like I was only covering out there for, like, 3 seconds at some points."
Northwestern's two late touchdowns were the first second-half scores allowed by the Badgers in four games this season. The Badgers admitted they relaxed after taking a 31-10 lead and called it a lesson learned.
Still, the performance was further proof that UW has the makings of an elite defense. The front seven was dominant against Northwestern and, unlike last year when outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel did most of the big-play damage, it was a group effort.
"I just think that's the mantra of this defense is having guys who want to make plays and be in that moment," inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "The team loves watching guys make plays, but you also want to make that big play yourself. I think it's great just playing off each other and feeding off that energy."
Teamwork and energy the Badgers surely will need throughout the Big Ten season.