Badgers' secondary looks for redemption

Wisconsin ranks third in the nation in defending the pass.

The Badgers are one of just five FBS teams allowing fewer than 10 yards per completion (9.97). They are one of only six FBS teams to allow fewer than 10 passing touchdowns (nine). They rank 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense and tie for second in the Big Ten with 14 interceptions. They boast two All-Big Ten selections in cornerback Antonio Fenelus and safety Aaron Henry.

But two images have defined the Wisconsin secondary in 2011. They are images that each say more than 1,000 words, many of them unprintable, at least when Badgers fans are doing the talking.

The first: a Hail Mary pass from Michigan State's Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol as time expired to lift Michigan State to a 37-31 win against Wisconsin on Oct. 22. It resulted in Wisconsin's first loss.

The second: An on-the-run heave from Ohio State's Braxton Miller to Devin Smith for a 40-yard touchdown with 20 seconds left. It lifted the Buckeyes to a 33-29 win against Wisconsin, which had taken the lead seconds earlier on a long touchdown pass of its own.

If Wisconsin knocks down the two passes, the team finds itself right in the thick of the national championship race. Instead, the two plays serve as reminders of what might have been. They also have heightened the focus for Badgers defensive backs heading into the Big Ten championship game Saturday against Michigan State.

"Those two plays that stand out are going to be used as one of two things," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "You can either take them as a failure. That means that you just never learn from it and never going to move forward. Or you can take a negative situation and turn it into a positive, which I think they've done."

Since the Ohio State game Wisconsin has allowed just 121.5 pass yards a game and only two total touchdowns. The Badgers have intercepted seven passes during the span.

"We're extremely motivated," Henry said. "It really boils down to every snap counts. You can hear somebody say, 'Every snap counts,' and a team can play 70 great snaps and on the 71st snap, it's a Hail Mary or it's a touchdown. We've just got to go out there and play every snap like it's our last."

Henry admitted the Badgers likely would have to relive the Hail Mary throughout championship week as they prepare to face Michigan State again. Bielema said, "It was a great highlight on ESPN for about three weeks there. I swear, it was on every commercial. It was kind of forced on you."

But Wisconsin's defensive backs already addressed the play in their meetings. They hadn't faced a Hail Mary situation quite like the one at Michigan State before, and they expect to be better prepared should another arise.

"Ever since that moment, we practice 'victory' defense," Fenelus said. "We're ready for it, if it comes down to that. ... We learned from our mistakes and Coach puts stress on us to stay deep, especially in end-of-game situations like that."

Wisconsin's secondary had a breakdown early in Saturday's game against Penn State, as Henry left the middle to help cover an outside receiver, leaving Curtis Drake wide open for an easy 44-yard touchdown. But after that point the Badgers tightened up significantly, allowing just 62 pass yards the rest of the game. Safety Shelton Johnson also recorded an interception as the Badgers blew out Penn State 45-7.

The secondary needs a strong effort against a Michigan State offense hitting its stride in the pass game. Michigan State has racked up 1,094 pass yards and 10 touchdowns in its previous four games. Spartans senior quarterback Kirk Cousins, who racked up 290 pass yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against Wisconsin on Oct. 22, appears to be playing his best football entering the title game.

But mindful of its past failures, Wisconsin will be ready.

"Unfortunately, we lost two games like that, pretty much," Henry said. "It was definitely a learning experience. We don't want to go out like that again."