University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash had no reason to believe a strong first half by his defense in the season opener against Northern Iowa on Saturday would not continue in the second half.
Especially since the coaches spent halftime hammering home the need to play a full 60 minutes, a message that has been heard constantly since last season.
Instead, Ash figures he got about 42 quality minutes out of his defense, followed by another 18 that probably were enough to get a coach to start pulling his hair out, in the Badgers’ 26-21 victory.
“It’s time collectively ... to put together a 60-minute game,” Ash said Sunday. “If not, we’ll ride the roller coaster like we have in the past. ... We’ll get it fixed.”
When Northern Iowa started a drive with 6 minutes, 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter, it had managed only 56 yards of offense on 21 plays and had not scored a point. From that point on, though, it ran 33 plays for 250 yards and three touchdowns.
The 18 minutes of lousy defense started on a third-and-10, when UNI redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen scrambled for six yards. The first of two fourth-down conversions for the Panthers came on a 21-yard completion against cornerback Marcus Cromartie.
“We were in two deep (safeties), he let a guy get outside, lost leverage on it,” Ash said. “... We have to be able to get off the field in critical situations.”
Two things were especially disheartening for the defense: mistakes on routine plays and the fact that they were made by some of the defense’s most reliable players.
UW gave up fourth-quarter touchdown passes of 55 and 31 yards to David Johnson on identical wheel routes, a pass route in which the back appears to be going in the flat before curving upfield.
“When you give up a couple big plays on things that really aren’t that complicated from an assignment standpoint, it’s disappointing,” said co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge. “It’s from some of your better players.”
UNI also hit another wheel route, a basic play in just about every team’s playbook.
“We see it every day at practice,” Ash said. “It’s not something new. … A couple guys just didn’t play it right.”
On the first one, senior weakside linebacker Mike Taylor blitzed and Johnson was uncovered. Free safety Dezmen Southward compounded the problem by missing a tackle near the UW 20. It was unclear who was responsible for Johnson, with Ash only saying it was an example of somebody not having his eyes where they were supposed to be.
“Eye discipline is so important on defense,” he said. “You take your eye off your key ... you can get burned and that’s what happened.”
Taylor was responsible for Johnson on the next touchdown, but looked away briefly at a receiver in the vicinity, which was enough to get beat on the play.
“Mike is an experienced player, he’s a prideful player,” Ash said. “He was sick about it after that play, sick about it all night, sick about it today. He wants to get back out there and make plays to make up for it.”
Taylor missed most of two weeks of preseason camp with a tender hamstring. When he returned, he said he felt healthy enough to have practiced earlier and was concerned about getting the work he needed to be ready for the season.
He finished with a team-high 13 tackles, but also dropped an easy interception on UNI’s first series. Ash said Taylor played “OK.”
“Mike missed a lot of training camp, really didn’t get back into the flow of things until almost game week,” Ash said. “So he’s a little bit rusty. But he’ll be just fine. He’s proven that he’s a big-time playmaker for us. We’ve just got to get him back to that point.”
Taylor is one of the most conscientious players on defense and is harder on himself than any of the coaches could be. It’s precisely that kind of outlook among his players that has Ash convinced the defense will learn from its mistakes before they lead to a loss.
“Great players and great defenses play 60 minutes,” Ash said. “It only takes one guy to make a mistake that can cost the whole football team. You don’t want to be that guy.
“We talk about having a shared fear. You’ve got to have a shared fear of letting your teammates down. If you’ve invested a lot, you’ll have it. These guys have invested a lot and they have it.”
Jackson suffers another knee injury
Freshman running back Vonte Jackson, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee a year ago as a high school senior at Kenosha Bradford, suffered an injury to his right knee in practice last week, according to a source. Jackson was expected to be redshirted this season anyway. The extent of the injury was not known.