MADISON, Wis. — Natrell Jamerson stepped in front of the target, caught the ball and surveyed the road ahead to the end zone.
What a view.
“Green grass,” the Wisconsin safety said with a smile.
Well, he did have to make at least one guy miss on his 36-yard interception return for a touchdown against Northwestern.
From the secondary to the line of scrimmage, the Badgers’ big-play defense can wreak havoc and force turnovers. Northwestern found out the hard way when the Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) beat the Wildcats 33-24 on Saturday in its conference opener.
Wisconsin moved up one spot to No. 9 in the AP Top 25 poll released Sunday. Next up for the Badgers is a matchup Saturday night at Nebraska (3-2).
In many respects, this is a typically tough but relatively anonymous Wisconsin defense, at least on the national scene. Solid across the field, but without true star power. The closest the Badgers had to a headline-grabber was linebacker Jack Cichy, and he’s out for the year with following a preseason knee injury.
There are new headliners in the making.
Garrett Dooley had three sacks of the eight sacks against the Wildcats. Up front, Alec James’ sack for an 11-yard loss on third down forced Northwestern to punt on its opening drive of the second half.
Safety D’Cota Dixon with 12 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks, including one on Clayton Thorson with 58 seconds left in the game that led to the victory-sealing safety . Until then, Northwestern had narrowed a 21-point deficit quickly with two late scores in the fourth quarter to make things interesting. Dixon said the defense relaxed a little after going up by three touchdowns.
“Once you hit Big Ten play, teams are going to be fighting all four quarters. It’s kind of a reality check that teams aren’t going to stop coming,” said linebacker Ryan Connelly, who had 10 tackles.
But neither do the Badgers.
The final score wasn’t indicative of the defense’s overall domination. The D kept the Badgers in the game in a first half that ended with Wisconsin trailing 10-7 while the offense and special teams had early struggles.
Wisconsin held Northwestern to a 34-yard field goal after Jazz Peavy fumbled the opening kickoff. A second-quarter touchdown allowed came when the Badgers went three-and-out before a 33-yard punt from their own 11 gave the Wildcats excellent field position.
“I thought our defense did really well and kept us in the game, gave us a chance,” coach Paul Chryst said.
Jim Leonhard, in his first year as coordinator after being promoted from defensive backs coach, dialed up stunts and pressures that for the most part weren’t used in nonconference action. A former NFL safety, Leonhard had his safeties in position to make big plays.
Dixon seemed like he was all over the field. A one-time receiver, fellow safety Jamerson put his offensive skills to good use with two interceptions.
On the pick returned for a score, Jamerson stepped in front of cornerback Derrick Tindal to get to the ball. Wisconsin had so much pressure up front on Thorson that the two defensive backs looked like the closest targets.
“Toward the end we just got out of breath and they took advantage of that,” Jamerson said. “But we were able to hit it head on, close it out how we did.”