In 15 trips to the red zone this season, University of Wisconsin opponents reached the end zone just five times. That 33.3 percent touchdown conversation rate is the best in the country and marks the third straight season in which the Badgers have ranked highly in that category.
With three different coordinators and plenty of roster turnover during that time, UW’s success defensively inside the 20 isn’t simply a result of talent or scheme. In fact, according to some Badgers players, entering those situations with the right mindset may have more to do with it than anything else.
"I think it’s fight or flight because they’re right there,” UW inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "Our expectation for our defense is to not give up points. When it’s staring us right in the face, we know we have to make a play."
UW made plenty of those back-against-the-wall plays last week in a crucial win at Nebraska. The Cornhuskers’ first drive began with a 13-yard run and a 37-yard pass. Nebraska’s first play in the red zone? A pick-six by inside linebacker Chris Orr that swung momentum and gave the Badgers a 7-0 lead.
Later in the first half, redshirt freshman cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams made a fantastic play in man-to-man coverage on third-and-12 from the Badgers’ 16-yard line, battling away a pass to wide receiver JD Spielman in the end zone.
Two of the five touchdowns UW’s allowed in the red zone this season came in the final minutes against Northwestern after the Badgers had already built a big lead.
"Just because somebody breaks a big play, there’s still a chance to prevent points or just give up three points,” UW cornerback Derrick Tindal said. "When we get to the red zone, we just know, there’s no quit in us. We’re going to fight even harder.
"That wears down an offense when you keep stopping them in the red zone, and I feel like we did that in the last game. We kept stopping them in the red zone, and that took a toll on them."
It may be difficult to wear down Purdue in that way when the Boilermakers visit Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. They’ve scored a touchdown on 70 percent of their red-zone trips this season, 31st-best in the country, and at least came away with a field goal on 19 of their 20 tries inside the 20.
Two previous UW opponents, Northwestern and Florida Atlantic, still have a higher red zone touchdown percentage this season than the Purdue, though.
The Badgers have faced successful red zone offenses already, and they’ll hope their level of urgency near the goal line will continue keeping opponents out of the end zone.
"Obviously, schematically, you’ve got to give them a chance,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "But you need playmakers. You need guys to understand the urgency of, you can’t miss the play. You can’t miss your opportunity down there or that’s a touchdown. … It can’t be one of those situations where, ‘My bad. I’ll get ‘em next time.’
“It really is a mindset more than anything. You’ve got to lock in."