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‘D’ focused on third downs

October 7, 2010

MADISON – Were they going to get off the field? Were they going to give their offense a chance to get back on the field?

Those questions, posed rhetorically by Aaron Henry while fielding questions in a trailer just outside Spartan Stadium last Saturday, likely were going through the mind of many Badger players and fans as Michigan State marched down the field late in the game.

In the end, the answers to the questions were, ‘No,’ and ‘Not really.’

Trailing by three points with 10 minutes remaining in their Big Ten season opener, all the Badgers had to do was hold the Spartans to a field goal. Do that, and they had a chance to escape with a late, game-winning touchdown drive.

Instead, they let Kirk Cousins lead Michigan State down the field for a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock. Not only was UW then trailing by 10 points, it also had little time in which to mount a comeback.

“Of course, of course you’ve got to get off the field. Definitely, man,” Henry said. “The game is won on defense, believe it or not. Anytime you play a team, if you can’t get off the field, if you can’t force the team to punt, you put yourself in a bad situation.”

While they secured three turnovers on defense, the Badgers only forced the Spartans to punt once in the game. Every other drive that didn’t result in a turnover ended with MSU putting points on the board.

Much of that had to do with the Badgers’ inability to get off the field on third down, which allowed Michigan State to string together a few long scoring drives. After allowing the Spartans to convert on 9 of 18 third-down conversion attempts, it’s no surprise that third downs have been a point of emphasis in practice this week.

What may not be as apparent is the focus put on having success on first and second down, to avoid tough third down situations.

“It’s a big issue when on first and second down you’re giving up three or four yards and they’re in third and short, third and three to five,” said defensive end J.J. Watt. “Third and three to five is a hard down to play, and I know it’s a hard down for him to call, so we really can’t put the defensive coordinator in situations like that.”

Though last week’s shortcomings have certainly been a point of emphasis, there’s no lack of motivation on the Wisconsin sideline as they prepare for this week’s opponent.

With border rival Minnesota coming into Camp Randall for Saturday’s homecoming game, the Badgers know exactly what’s at stake. Considering the way they played in East Lansing to open the conference season, the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe could not come at a better time.

“You can’t think of a better game to have. If we’re going to go out there and play the game of our lives, this week would be a great week to do it,” Henry said. “I think this Axe is something that motivates everybody in the locker room. You would hate for a team to run over on your sideline and take it.”

Despite the Gophers’ lack of success so far, the UW defense will not be taking them lightly. It’s been seven years since Minnesota held the Axe, with the last six contests being decided by an average of 12 points.

In their last three matchups — two in Minneapolis and one in Madison — the Badgers have won by just over four points a game, and by just three in each of the last two.

With no one on the current Minnesota roster having touched the Axe in their careers, the last thing Wisconsin wants to do is see the Gophers celebrate with it on their home turf.

“They’re a hungry team. This is like the Super Bowl for them,” safety Jay Valai said. “So I know we’ll play them just the same way. It’s going to be a fun game.

“We don’t want anybody to come on our sidelines and have that feeling we felt a couple years ago at Iowa.”

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