In an ideal world, the University of Wisconsin football team would have a shutdown corner that could match up all over the field against Minnesota senior wide receiver Eric Decker on Saturday.
That's what the Badgers had two years ago, when Jack Ikegwuonu and Decker traded blows in an epic battle. But that's not how the UW secondary rolls this year.
"I would take a Jack Ikegwuonu any day, as far as his abilities and things he could do," UW defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said.
"But I like this group of defensive backs. I think we're going through our own challenges and our own successes. I like how these guys respond."
After a poor game against Fresno State in the second week, the cornerbacks had to wait two weeks for another chance since Wofford only attempted seven passes the following game.
Cooks could not have asked for a much better response in the 38-30 win over Michigan State last week, despite allowing a misleading 396 passing yards.
Early in the fourth quarter, while the Badgers built a 21-point lead, they held the Big Ten Conference's best passing game to 176 yards and two touchdowns on circus catches.
"If you're going to catch the ball in the end zone, make it that kind of catch," defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. "We took their best receiver (Blair White) out of the game, he had one catch for eight yards. I thought we played extremely well."
Two things happened after that. After aggressively challenging routes all game, the cornerbacks went soft while protecting the lead on a 62-yard touchdown drive that took 40 seconds.
Then, a communication breakdown involving senior safety Chris Maragos led to a 91-yard touchdown pass on the next series.
"Obviously, I would have wanted to finish the game a little better," Cooks said. "As I watched the tape, I feel (darn) good about how my guys played. They challenged routes. They were all over those wide receivers."
That's the confidence-builder the cornerbacks needed going into another big challenge against the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Decker, who ranks sixth nationally in receptions per game (8.75) and receiving yards (124.75).
While UW quarterback Scott Tolzien spreads the ball around, there is no doubt where Minnesota junior Adam Weber looks first. Decker's 1,074 receiving yards last season accounted for 37.7 percent of the team's total. This year's 499 yards account for 56.3 percent. Still, Decker is almost impossible to stop.
"They do a really good job of trying to find ways to get him the ball," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "I heard (Minnesota coach) Tim (Brewster) say they try to script 10 plays ... that they can go to at any point during the course of each game, that are designed specifically to get No. 7 the ball."
The Gophers do the usual things to free up Decker: putting him in motion and lining him up in different spots. But it's what he does after the play starts that makes him such a handful.
"I can see why he's making plays," Cooks said. "He's competitive, he's a big-body wide receiver and he's very skilled."
The Badgers saw the competitiveness two years ago, when he caught six passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Ikegwuonu. That was also the game in which television cameras showed Decker delivering a punch to Ikegwuonu's groin during one heated battle.
Last year, the Badgers prepared to face Decker but he was held out of UW's 35-32 win with an ankle injury.
"If I'm a defensive back, I want to play against the best," said Cooks, a former Iowa safety. "They were anticipating him playing all week. When he didn't, obviously, they were a little disappointed."
The Badgers rotate four cornerbacks: sophomores Devin Smith, Antonio Fenelus and Aaron Henry, plus junior Niles Brinkley. Maybe there will be strength in numbers, since putting Ikegwuonu on Decker didn't work all that well although the Badgers won 41-34.
"We're going to have to be creative about how we play him, whether that's keeping a different guy on him, or doubling him, whatever it is," Doeren said.
"I think it helps those (corners) stay focused. I think it presents a unique challenge to receivers, too, where maybe they can't get a bead on a guy's technique as much."