Defense relying on execution, not adjustments
MADISON – The numbers suggest Jim Leonhard has gone into the locker room at halftime of each of Wisconsin’s five games, shredded the defensive game plan and fashioned a new one on his iPad.
Leonhard, in his first season as UW’s defensive coordinator, insists that isn’t close to reality.
“A lot of it is just focusing on the execution,” Leonhard said when asked about what halftime adjustments are made each week. “At times there are some schematic things. Not anything new that you’re drawing up in the dirt.
“But the majority is just execution. It’s confirming with the guys what we’re seeing. We saw this all week. It’s the same.
“Just giving them the confidence and trust to go out there and play. A lot of times it is more of an attitude adjustment than it is schematic.”
Whatever advice has been shared during those halftime talks is working as No. 6 UW (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) prepares to host
Purdue (3-2, 1-1) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Consider the numbers: Opponents are averaging 10 points and 178.6 yards in the first half. That includes 71.8 yards rushing and 106.8 passing.
Opponents are averaging 4.2 points and 99.2 yards in the second half. That includes 13.6 yards rushing and 85.6 passing.
UW has outscored its foes in the second half, 119-21. Seven of those 21 points came on an interception return for a touchdown by Nebraska. UW's defense has outscored opponents in the final quarter by a combined 18-14.
Joe Ferguson and Natrell Jamerson returned interceptions for touchdowns and the defense recorded safeties against BYU and Northwestern.
“We just know that sometimes we aren’t playing to our capabilities,” senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley said, referring to play in the opening half. “I just think that when we come out we have a fire in our hearts to prove who we really are.”
Northwestern is the only team that has scored more points in the second half than in the first against UW. The Wildcats scored 14 of their 24 points in the final quarter — after UW built a 31-10 lead.
The Nebraska game better than any other illustrates the improvement by UW’s defense after halftime.
In the first half Nebraska ran 42 plays, rolled up 313 total yards, converted 5 of 10 thirddown chances and held the ball for 14 minutes 52 seconds. Despite those numbers, UW held a 17-10 lead. In the second half Nebraska ran 19 plays for only 68 yards, converted 2 of 5 third-down chances and held the ball for just 8:22.
Missed tackles and fundamental breakdowns resulted in too many rushing yards in the first half and a blown coverage led to an 80yard touchdown pass.
According to several players, Leonhard and the other defensive assistants emphasized the original game plan and fundamentals.
“That time at halftime is so crucial,” redshirt junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said, “just for players to give feedback to coaches and for the coaches to give feedback to us. The biggest thing is just to get everyone back on track.
“Saturday the biggest thing was just making the plays we needed to make, the plays that we make every day. Just go out there and execute and I think we started to do that.”
Redshirt junior D’Cota Dixon, still rankled by the blown coverage on the 80yard touchdown pass, loves the second-half numbers but stressed the first-half numbers have to improve.
“It is more a tone adjustment, an attitude adjustment,” Dixon said of the halftime discussions. “There are certain things we tweak a little bit but the main thing is like a reality check. Guys try to lock in just a little bit more.
“We need to do that the whole game. I don’t think we’ve done that yet. And we’re going to play a team that you’re not going to be able to turn that switch on. It could be this week. We’ll find out.”