Prior to taking the field last Saturday following a blocked punt, University of Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge called long-snapper James McGuire over in front of the defense.
It was McGuire’s low snap, which punter Drew Meyer failed to handle, that allowed Michigan State to block the punt and take over at the UW 11-yard line.
“We made a big deal of it on the sidelines, brought James over, made sure he understood the defense has his back in that scenario,” Partridge said on Tuesday. ‘It was big for the momentum in the game.”
Leading 7-3 in the second quarter, the UW defense did something it has struggled to do all season — get a stop in the red zone.
Two Spartans penalties, one for holding and one for a false start, as well as a sack pushed them out of field-goal range and led to a punt.
The Badgers have ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference in red zone defense all season. In 20 chances, they have gotten only two stops (90 percent scores allowed). The only other one came against Utah State.
“I wish we had a few more stops, but I’m not concerned about red zone defense,” defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Bottom line, I’m concerned about points.
“I don’t care where they score points, we’ve got to keep them off the scoreboard, regardless of where the ball is at.”
That may be true, but a red zone stop at the end of regulation or in overtime would have reversed the decision in UW’s 16-13 loss.
It has been a break-but-don’t-bend defense for the Badgers. They are third in the Big Ten in three key categories: scoring defense (17.6 points per game), total defense (311.3 yards per game) and opponents’ third-down conversions (30.7 percent).
But for some reason, the defense that has played so well on the rest of the field has struggled inside its own 20-yard line.
“We haven’t been down there much,” Partridge said. “That’s the good thing about it. We look at touchdowns more than we look at scores.”
UW has allowed 13 red zone touchdowns, for a TD percentage of 65.0. Last season, the Badgers allowed 84 percent red zone scores overall (27 of 32) and 59 percent touchdowns (19 of 32).
The inability to stop the Spartans on their final two trips in the red zone spoiled what had otherwise been UW’s best defensive performance of the season.
Michigan State had 14 rushing yards in the first half, one first down in the second half prior to the final drive and only two plays of 20-plus yards allowed — both 23-yard completions — until a 20-yard catch on the final drive.
“It was disappointing to play so well and not win the game,” Ash said. “Bottom line, we played to win the game.”
One of the issues in the red zone is UW has allowed 15 touchdown passes overall, tied with Illinois for the most in the Big Ten. Five of those passes have been longer than 20 yards, but 10 have come in the red zone.
“We’ll continue to evaluate what coverages we’re using down there and do our best to put our kids in the best position,” Partridge said.
The Spartans scored the tying touchdown on a 5-yard shovel pass to tailback Le’Veon Bell on third-and-4.
Partridge said they run the shovel pass “once or twice a year, usually in key scenarios. Didn’t quite get into position to get them off (the field).”
Redshirt freshman nickel back Darius Hillary had decent coverage but gave up the winning 12-yard touchdown pass in overtime on a nice back-shoulder throw by Andrew Maxwell and catch by Bennie Fowler.
“He was in great shape,” Ash said of the coverage. “It was a good throw and a good catch. Darius could have done some things better at the top. They’re on scholarship, too.”
Ash doesn’t make a big deal out of red zone defense because he doesn’t want his players thinking they have to play harder down there, while taking it easier elsewhere.
“I don’t care where they get the ball ... we’ve got to go out and stop them and keep them off the board,” Ash said. “That’s our mentality; that’s the way we approach it.”
But the red zone issues are threatening to undermine the otherwise solid play by the defense, since opposing offenses have been maximizing the few scoring chances they get.
Both Ash and Partridge said the field goal UW’s offense scored on the first possession of overtime should have been enough to win the game.
“The bottom line is if they don’t score at that point, we win,” Partridge said. “We stop them, they kick a field goal and we get another chance.
“Any time we have the lead, with the way our defense is playing overall this year, you feel like you have a chance to win the game. (We) didn’t get it done on Saturday."