MADISON, Wis. — So picky, that Wisconsin defense.

Not only do the fifth-ranked Badgers have one of the best defenses in the country in forcing turnovers, but they’re a threat to score when they get their hands on the ball, too.

Wisconsin’s four interception returns for touchdowns match Duke for most in the country this year, and it’s the most for the program in a season since at least 1950.

This is partly a result of a fierce pass rush that forces quarterbacks into mistakes. Also credit an athletic linebacking corps and experienced secondary trained to swarm to the ball.

“Everybody just violently breaks the ball,” said inside linebacker Chris Orr, who scored on an interception return against Nebraska. “You know if you’re doing that defensively, you might get a tipped ball, somebody might hit somebody, the ball pops up and catch it. That’s all it is.”

As if Illinois’ young offense doesn’t have enough to worry about when Wisconsin visits Champaign on Saturday. The Illini have allowed an interception for a touchdown in two of the last three games.

A year after matching the school single-season record with 22 interceptions, Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) has picked off 10 passes this year under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. He was the Badgers’ secondary coach last season.

Those interception returns take communication. Once a defender has the ball, the first order of business is to find the intended receiver and throw a block.

Beyond that, it sounds simple. But the situations are difficult to replicate.

“You’re talking a lot. Obviously we’ve had a lot of crucial blocks,” Leonhard said. “Half of the battle is catching the ball in space, and we’ve done that and guys have stayed on their feet and tried to get it into the end zone.”

Leonhard knows what he’s talking about as a former NFL safety who starred at Wisconsin in college. He picked off 21 passes in his college career, including 11 as a sophomore in 2002.

The lessons hit home with the secondary.

Safety Natrell Jameson said that one tip he has taken away from Leonhard is to watch the quarterback’s eyes when he hits his back step because “the way he’s looking is the way he’s going to throw it.”

Jamerson returned an interception for a touchdown in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern.

“It’s not really luck. We do it at practice, catch picks all the time at practice so when it comes in a game, once the ball is in your hands just make a play on it,” Jamerson said.

If the defense doesn’t score, the Badgers have still been able to capitalize. They’ve scored 62 points off 13 forced turnovers, which include three fumble recoveries. Overall, Wisconsin has forced 27 turnovers over its last 12 games.

“We want to challenge, we want to make quarterbacks beat us and get close to receivers. Hate giving guys easy throws, easy completions,” Leonhard said. “We’ve left a few (interceptions) out there, but for the most part I think when we’ve had those opportunities we’ve made them.”


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GENARO C. ARMAS
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