Joe Ferguson - Wisconsin vs. Indiana

Wisconsin Badgers safety Joe Ferguson (8) is congratulated by a member of the UW coaching staff on his fumble recovery during the second quarter of Wisconsin's 45-17 win over the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Even more impressive than University of Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson going on a late-career interception binge is that he's been calling his shots as he does it.

"This is two weeks in a row," tight end Troy Fumagalli said Saturday, "that he's called that he's going to get a pick."

Fumagalli and Ferguson are roommates and Ferguson told him the night before last week's victory at Illinois that he would get an interception against the Illini, which he did. But that wasn't the end of Ferguson's fearless predictions.

With UW clinging to a 24-17 lead over Indiana early in the fourth quarter Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the Badgers punted to the Hoosiers and, prior to heading out on defense, Ferguson walked over to another one of his roommates, quality control assistant coach Matt Miller, and issued another prophecy.

"Before the drive," Ferguson said, "I went up to Matt and said, 'I'm going to get one this drive.' He was like, 'All right, man, go do it.' And it just so happened they put one in my lap."

Well, it wasn't quite that easy. Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow threw the ball low on a crossing pattern and Ferguson made a diving interception at the Hoosiers' 27-yard line. Then he did it again. On the first play of Indiana's next series, Ferguson intercepted an overthrown ball on another crossing pattern at Indiana's 33.

The picks both set up touchdowns that helped fourth-ranked UW turn a seven-point lead into a 45-17 victory. Along with a first-half fumble recovery that led to still another UW touchdown, it was a banner day for Ferguson, a fifth-year senior from Madison Memorial who has been a special teams regular and a sporadic defensive contributor since he arrived on campus.

Ferguson started the Illinois game in place of injured D'Cota Dixon and entered the Indiana game when Dixon left with an injury in the first half. But with four interceptions — who could forget his 99-yard interception return for a touchdown against Utah State? — this season, Ferguson leads UW in picks. Not bad for a part-time player.

“Ferg’s just a playmaker, man," cornerback Derrick Tindal said. "There are certain people who have a knack for being around the ball and he’s one of them. He does it in practice all the time."

Ferguson downplayed his role and, to be sure, UW had a pass rusher in Lagow's face on both picks. But Ferguson's experience and instincts also played a role.

"I was in the right spot at the right time," he said. "You've got to know what the coaches are telling you, trust the defense, know your rules and trust that your teammates are going to be where they're supposed to be. A lot of that was just being in the right spot at the right time. If you trust the defense, good things happen."

Good things also happened in the second quarter when UW linebacker Tyler Johnson stripped the ball from tailback Morgan Ellison on a sweep. The officials initially ruled Ellison down, but as players stood around, the ball rolled on the ground for a few seconds before Ferguson alertly pounced on it. When replay reversed the officials' call and declared it a fumble, UW was awarded the ball at Indiana's 11-yard line.

"I wasn't sure if it was dead or not and I saw it and I was like, 'Well, I better jump on this just to be safe,' " Ferguson said. "I was really surprised that they called it a fumble. It seemed like someone had recovered it a million times, but I was glad it worked out the way it did."

Ferguson only predicted one of his three takeaways against Indiana, but that didn't dampen his big day. The grandson of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez has been waiting five years to make a significant impact at UW. The last two weeks, he has.

"It's an incredible feeling," Ferguson said. "I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get on the stat sheet, but I'm just riding the wave. I'm just taking it day by day and trying to stay grounded and just do my thing."

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.