Badger secondary will receive first test tonight
TEMPE, Ariz.—Sojourn Shelton is a quick study.
The freshman cornerback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., graduated a semester early from Plantation High School, enrolled at Wisconsin in January, impressed the staff in the spring and then in camp won a starting spot.
Shelton has only two games on his UW résumé yet he is aware enough to know No. 20 UW (2-0) is an underdog against unranked Arizona State (1-0) and the inexperienced secondary is expected to be the Badgers' Achilles' heel tonight and against any team with a competent passing game.
“I'm excited,” said a beaming Shelton, who plays bigger than his listed size of 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds. “I've always been the type to want to prove people wrong. And as a team that is the best part, going into somewhere and pretty much taking over their turf.
“For me just being a small guy, I've always been told you can't do this or you can't do that.
“I just see that as a situation as our team going into some place… a lot of people have us as the underdog. We know we can get it done.”
How UW's secondary performs tonight against Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly, who spreads the ball around to wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, will be one of several key factors when the teams meet at 9:30 p.m. in a game shown on ESPN.
Kelly, who completed 23 of 31 attempts for 300 yards and five touchdowns in the opener against Sacramento State, passed for 3,039 yards last season. He had 27 touchdowns and only nine interceptions and completed 67.1 percent of his passes.
UW, which finished No.5 in the Big Ten in pass defense last season (193.6 yards per game, 18 TDs allowed, eight INTs), had to replace three starters in the secondary.
And the secondary has become a lightning rod for criticism in recent seasons.
The memories of UW allowing game-winning touchdown passes in the final minute of consecutive losses to Michigan State and Ohio State in 2011 remain strong.
“To be completely honest,” fifth-year senior safety Dezmen Southward said, “every single year that I have been here I think the DBs have been labeled as the weak link. I think if you go back at film and look at film it shows differently.
“Maybe things have been a louder this year because there is so much uncertainty—from the outside world because they are not here with us.
“But I can't let those types of things get to me because at the end of the day I see these guys work every day. And I see they are talented. I see that they are learning. I see they are ready to play.”
Southward, who plays strong safety, is the lone returning starter. Redshirt sophomore Michael Caputo won the starting job at free safety. He has proved to be a disciplined player and a sure tackler through two games. Shelton hasn't backed down from any receiver and recorded his first interception in the opener.
Redshirt junior cornerback Peniel Jean, who missed the first six games last season after suffering a broken foot in camp, has been solid in the first two games this season. He leads the team in passes broken up with three. Redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary, the No.1 nickel back, forced a fumble that led to a touchdown last week against Tennessee Tech.
The top five defensive backs have at least five tackles, and the tackling from front to back has been above average.
“No one is going to be perfect,” Southward said, “but we're going to be a very, very strong unit. And we definitely don't consider ourselves the weak link.”
The Sun Devils, vastly superior to UW's first two foes, will test every link, from the strongest to the weakest.
Led by wide receiver Jaelen Strong (six catches, 58 yards and one TD), 11 players caught at least one pass in the Sun Devils' 55-0 victory over Sacramento State.
“Our ability to tackle in space will be a big part of the outcome,” UW coach Gary Andersen said.
UW hasn't allowed a point in two games. Arizona State averaged 38.4 points per game last season and scored fewer than 20 points just once, a 38-17 loss at USC.
Like Southward, Jean heard and read in the off-season that the secondary was the biggest question mark not only of the defense but of the team.
“That is every year,” Jean said. “Since I've been here it has been the same thing. Every year it is some stereotype with our secondary that we're not going to play well. It is just one or two big plays that puts a mark on us.
“It is just a cycle. It is what it is. You've just got to block it out and go out and play.”