One by one, members of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense arrived for their postgame interviews Saturday afternoon and offered essentially the same review.
Good, but not good enough.
“B-minus,” said senior outside linebacker Leon Jacobs, offering a grade for the No. 9 Badgers’ 31-14 victory over Florida Atlantic at Camp Randall Stadium. “We hold ourselves to a high standard.”
Jacobs and others acknowledged that standard wasn’t met against the Owls, particularly in the first half.
It was the second consecutive week that there were just enough bad things that went wrong in opening 30 minutes to leave a sour taste in the defense’s mouth.
Both times, the Badgers (2-0) have made the necessary adjustments at halftime. They have yet to allow a point in the second half this season.
“The last two weeks, we’ve just been able to find our edge when we come out at halftime,” senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “Obviously, that’s something we need to do from the get-go, at the beginning of the game. I think that’s just something that we’ve got to work on and know that once we get put in really tight games that’s not something where we can be lackadaisical at the beginning and then automatically kick it in in the second half. We’ve got to get it going at the start of the game.”
The similarities with the Badgers’ 59-10 victory over Utah State in the opener didn’t end there. Just like in that game, UW’s defense was thrown in a difficult situation following a turnover by the offense and didn’t respond.
This time, it was an ill-advised pass by Alex Hornibrook in the second quarter that led to an interception and gave the Owls (0-2) the ball at the UW 27-yard line. Florida Atlantic needed only four plays to cover that distance and score a touchdown that cut the Badgers’ lead to 21-14.
Florida Atlantic, like Utah State, ran an up-tempo scheme that gave the Badgers fits at times.
UW scrambled to get play calls in and get its defense set, and the failure to do so in one instance led to the Owls’ biggest play of the game.
The main issue that led to Daniel Parr’s 63-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre McNeal late in the first quarter was miscommunication on UW’s part. Junior cornerback Nick Nelson let McNeal fly right past him on a go route, thinking he had safety help over the top.
But that wasn’t the case. Senior cornerback Derrick Tindal, who was lined up as the nickel back, said he was unable to relay the message to Nelson that UW’s corners were in man coverage.
“We’ve got to fix that,” Tindal said.
There was plenty to like about UW’s performance on defense, including a pass rush that was improved from Week 1. Jacobs, Dooley, Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards and Andrew Van Ginkel each collected one sack and the Badgers finished with 10 tackles for loss.
Plus, the Owls only had 50 yards on 19 plays in the second half after producing 198 yards on 33 plays in the opening 30 minutes.
Break it down even further, and 144 of Florida Atlantic’s 248 yards came on four plays: two catches by McNeal, and explosive runs of 26 and 20 yards. The Owls averaged only 2.1 yards on their other 50 plays in the game.
“It’s still early in the season and we’re still working out the kinks of playing together,” UW senior defensive end Alec James said. “But there are definitely guys with a lot of passion on our defense. It’s good to get that stuff out of the way now than later, once we start getting into Big Ten play.”
Orr had no qualms with the B-minus grade delivered by Jacobs. Considering UW’s toughest test to date is right around the corner — the Badgers travel to BYU next week — the defense knows it has some things to clean up.
“We had too many mental errors, period,” Orr said. “We should be a lot sharper than we were.”