Badgers' secondary must learn quickly from mistakes
SEP 18, 2013 7:49p ET
Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly victimized the secondary for 352 yards passing during a 32-30 victory on Saturday night -- the first 300-yard performance against Wisconsin since 2009. He threw underneath. He threw over the top. He hit multiple back-shoulder fade throws on the sideline. And Wisconsin could do little to stop the Sun Devils' passing sizzle -- unless it fell outside the framework of football rules.
The Badgers were penalized on six occasions for a total 76 yards. All six penalties came from members of the secondary: two pass interference calls on cornerback Darius Hillary, two more on cornerback Sojourn Shelton, a holding call on Shelton and a late hit from safety Dezmen Southward on Kelly as he ran out of bounds. Safety Michael Caputo also was flagged for holding, but the Sun Devils declined the penalty.
"I definitely think they tested us when we came out there," Hillary said. "It was everything that the coaches said it was going to be."
The question now is how Wisconsin moves on from a day in which the secondary was exposed for its inexperience -- and whether anyone should be concerned about the alarming rate of penalties.
Shelton in particular had a rough performance in just his third college game. In addition to being flagged for three penalties, the freshman also had a punt carom off his leg for a fumble as he tried to block downfield.
But it was Shelton's animated behavior on the field, when he outwardly protested a second-quarter pass interference call on receiver Jaelen Strong, which drew the attention of Badgers coach Gary Andersen.
"The extra antics out of Sojourn have got to go away," Andersen said. "It doesn't matter. Hold your hands in the air and kicking and screaming, that doesn't really make the difference. The play is the play. That's part of the cornerback position.
"Sojourn will go through that. We need to coach him through that and get him moving in the right direction."
Shelton called the entire game a learning experience and noted he needed to strike a balance between being overly aggressive and properly using his technique. Shelton stands just 5-foot-9 and 172 pounds and is the smallest corner on the field and tried to overcompensate.
"I wouldn’t say I let my emotions get the best of me on that one play," Shelton said. "It was kind of hard to believe. During that time of the game, it was pretty close. They were driving down. You don’t want to give up a touchdown. You don’t want to be that guy out there with guys that are fighting and competing. I think just from watching it, there was nothing more I could do.
"The guys around me, they told me to forget about it, go out there and bow up. I think on that drive, we actually did. Just going to the next game, from here on out, I know calls will be made. Sometimes you don’t agree with them, but you've just got to keep fighting."
The secondary will have to improve or risk putting the Badgers in an unusual place in the national penalty yard rankings. Wisconsin ranks 66th in fewest penalty yards per game at 50.7 yards thus far. The Badgers' 5.33 penalties per game rank tied for 47th.
Dating back to 2000, Wisconsin has finished in the top 25 nationally in fewest penalty yards 10 times in 13 seasons. The Badgers have been outside the top 50 just twice, in 2008 and 2000.
Wisconsin cornerbacks coach Ben Strickland said he was not concerned about the amount of penalties as a whole because the mistakes boiled down to techniques issues that could be fixed.
"There's a right way to be aggressive and a wrong way to be aggressive and understanding the fine line that goes along with that," Strickland said. "But I never want them to play scared. I want them to have confidence in what they're doing and confidence in what they're being taught. Just continue to compete. And if it gets called, it gets called.
"Our guys aren’t going to back down from a challenge. They know if they play with the technique that’s taught, more times than not, they're not going to get those calls. Just continue to battle."
This week, the secondary has also worked on handling deep ball drills and back shoulder fades, Hillary said. Kelly beat Hillary on back shoulder throws in man coverage on consecutive plays while the Sun Devils trailed 24-19. Later on the drive, he completed a back-shoulder throw to receiver D.J. Foster on Caputo, and Arizona State went on to score a touchdown.
One drive later, Kelly found Strong on another back shoulder throw against Badgers cornerback Peniel Jean. Arizona State clung to a 25-24 lead at the time, but running back Marion Grice followed with his fourth touchdown run to give the Sun Devils an eight-point lead.
Strickland noted he was trying to teach his corners to finish chest to chest on the defender, read his eyes and hands and attack the outside shoulder.
"We want to get it corrected so in the game if they come out and try and do a back shoulder fade, it doesn’t get completed, then they might go on to something else," Hillary said. "So I think that's what offenses look for, if you're correcting your mistakes."
If Saturday's game showed anything, it was that Wisconsin's secondary has plenty of those mistakes to correct.
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