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Tom Oates: Wisconsin’s elite defense has taken yet another step forward

December 2, 2016 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS — Vince Biegel was rushing the quarterback from the outside two weeks ago when he saw fellow University of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards bat a Purdue pass high into the air.

Biegel, a senior, instantly had visions of his first college interception.

“I saw a tipped pass, I had the ball in my hand and all of a sudden I looked down at the end of the play and it’s not there,” Biegel said.

Of course, it wasn’t. One of the other thieves on the new-look UW defense got there first. This time it was Edwards himself who made the interception, but it could have been just about anyone.

Ranked in the top seven nationally every year since 2013 in fewest yards and/or points allowed, UW’s defense has taken another significant step forward in recent weeks. Oh, it’s still stingy, ranking third nationally in points allowed and seventh in yards allowed, but with 11 takeaways — all interceptions — in the last three games, the defense has advanced to an entirely new level.

“I think it’s always just really good when we can create turnovers,” Edwards said. “The past couple weeks have been just really, really good.”

How good? UW leads the nation in interceptions with 21. That’s eight more than it had all last season and more than it has had in any season since 2002.

More than half of the interceptions have come in the last three games, a trend sixth-ranked UW hopes to build on when it faces eighth-ranked Penn State tonight in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Field.

With its hit-and-miss offense, UW has relied heavily on its defense all season. That defense will be doubly important Saturday because, with quarterback Trace McSorley and tailback Saquon Barkley, Penn State has the most well-rounded offense in the Big Ten.

There are many reasons UW’s defense has suddenly gone from very good to great by adding takeaways — 25 overall, eighth-best in the nation — to its repertoire under first-year coordinator Justin Wilcox.

The Badgers have one of the country’s best front sevens and they’re been getting consistent pressure from Biegel and T.J. Watt, their dynamic outside linebackers. The defensive backs have elevated their play tremendously under first-year secondary coach Jim Leonhard, abetted by a stout run defense has frequently left opponents facing third-and-long situations. Also, the defenders are making interceptions when the opportunity arises this season. And now that the entire defense has had time to grasp Wilcox’s scheme, it is playing even faster than it did before.

“Obviously, up front is where it starts,” Leonhard said. “We’ve had very consistent pressure all year round, whether it was LSU (in the opener) to last week (against Minnesota). Late in the season, we’ve been doing really well on first and second down and getting teams to force the ball on third down. Getting leads helps. ... It’s a combination of things, and then I give our guys, whether it’s our DBs or linebackers, credit for catching them. We’ve made some very impressive plays.”

As consistently strong as UW’s defense was in three seasons under former coordinator Dave Aranda, it was not a unit that forced many turnovers. The Badgers had 27 interceptions in 40 games under Aranda. They have 21 in 12 games this season.

The most significant change has come in the secondary, where Leonhard, who shares UW’s career record for interceptions with 21, returned after a 10-year stint as a cerebral NFL safety. UW’s backs are playing with more confidence and awareness than ever before.

That shows in the across-the-board interception totals. Safety Leo Musso leads the team with five, but safety D’Cota Dixon and cornerback Sojourn Shelton each have four and cornerback Derrick Tindal has three. The remaining five picks are by linebackers, including two by Edwards.

Shelton, a senior, points to Leonhard as the reason for the dramatic improvement on the back end. It is no coincidence that when UW had 22 interceptions in 2002, it was Leonhard who led the way with a school-record 11.

“He’s an extremely good coach,” Shelton said. “He has a lot of confidence in us. He always tells us, ‘Just make the play. As long as you’re in position, which you’re going to be in position a lot of the time, just breathe slow and make every opportunity that comes your way.’ It hasn’t even just been us on the back end. ... Guys all over on the defense are making plays. We truly have a knack for the ball.”

When you mesh that with an improved pass rush — UW is 28th in the nation in sacks -- you have a recipe for takeaways. It took a while for the Badgers to get there this season, but with four interceptions against both Illinois and Minnesota and three against Purdue, everything is clicking.

“I think when guys mentally know what they’re doing, they can play with so much confidence and play free,” Edwards said. “I think especially on the back end guys are so mentally locked in that now they can just go be ball hawks. They’ve been doing that all year and we need them to continue to do that.”

Indeed, fielding a complete defense is UW’s best hope for beating Penn State and becoming Big Ten champions.