Ryan Connelly, T.J. Edwards

Wisconsin Badgers linebackers Ryan Connelly (43) and T.J. Edwards (53) drive back Michigan Wolverines running back Chris Evans (12) for a loss during the fourth quarter of the Badgers' 24-10 win on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

There were plenty of nervous folks at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday when the fifth-ranked University of Wisconsin football team went to the halftime locker room tied with 19th-ranked Michigan.

However, all that nervous energy turned out to be wasted energy because the way UW has been playing defense in the second half of games this season, a 7-7 halftime score meant the game was already over. Indeed, behind still another dominant second-half performance from their defense, the Badgers ground out a 24-10 victory over the Wolverines, raising their record to 11-0 and leaving just one unanswered question about a team that has gone where no UW team has gone before:

Exactly what does defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard tell his players at halftime?

"I would say it's more mindset than adjustments," linebacker Ryan Connelly said. "He didn't say anything really about the game plan. He was like, 'Hey it's up to us. If they don't score, we win.' "

More often than not this season, UW's defense has been able to implement that action plan and turn the Badgers into a second-half dynamo that no opponent has been able to stop.

Michigan had hope after tying the game with a touchdown in the final 3 minutes of the first half, but this UW defense excels at squashing the hopes of opponents. Especially after the defenders have a chance to sit in the locker room and discuss what they saw in the first half.

By throwing when they were supposed to run, the Wolverines dented the Badgers defense for 169 yards and a touchdown in the first half Saturday. That's when the defense, per usual, found another gear and limited Michigan to 65 yards on 28 plays in the second half.

Sure, Michigan kicked a field goal to take a temporary 10-7 lead, but even that was a win for UW's defense. The Wolverines took over on the 29-yard line after linebacker Devin Bush made an athletic interception of an Alex Hornibrook pass, but Michigan went nowhere and had to settle for a gift field goal.

Once UW's offense came alive, something it also does routinely in the second half, Michigan became the biggest name among UW's 11 victims this season.

"It's just encouraging when you come in at halftime and know that you are beating yourselves, that it hasn't really been them making plays over you," safety Joe Ferguson said. "We're in there and we're just saying, 'OK, let's just be a little more focused and things are going to work out.' Then that first drive, something good happens and it kind of affirms what we talked about and we just build off of that for the entire game."

UW's defense has done that time and time again this season. After outscoring Michigan 17-3 in the second half and holding it scoreless in the fourth quarter, UW has outscored its opponents 212-58 in the second half and 111-21 in the fourth quarter this season.

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Delve into the numbers and they get even better. The defense was brilliant right from the start, limiting UW's three non-conference opponents to seven second-half points. But the prodiuction didn't fall off even when the defense started facing the stiffer competition of the Big Ten Conference.

In eight Big Ten games, UW has allowed 58 second-half points. But if you eliminate two pick-sixes thrown by Hornibrook and three consolation touchdowns -- two by Northwestern, one by Illinois -- after the outcome had long been determined, the defense has allowed only 23 points after halftime in Big Ten play -- three field goals and two touchdowns.

For the most part, the Badgers are done giving up points once the game hits halftime. They've seen everything they're going to see and know there are no more surprises, so they line up and go to work.

"There's a little bit of adjustment, but I think it's more of a mindset," linebacker T.J. Edwards said. 

"You come in and I think everyone just kind of settles down, calms down. Coming into the game, you don't really know what you're going to get. Then you see those things and you make your quick adjustments and everyone's talking and just settling down. We know what we have to do, we know what kind of game we have to play and we were able to do that today."

Michigan entered the game averaging 286 yards in its previous three games, all victories, so UW naturally geared up to stop the run. It succeeded, too, limiting the Wolverines to 58 yards on 37 carries for the game.

That came with a slight cost, though, as the Wolverines made some hay by throwing from running formations. Freshman quarterback Brandon Peters, who had basically been asked to hand off in his first three starts, threw for 133 yards in the opening half.

But once UW's defense saw what Michigan was doing and had a chance to discuss it, the game was over.

"It's a challenge we love to embrace," Connelly said. "Especially in the second half, we know it's crunch time and we like to put it on our shoulders."

That leaves only one final question: Can UW's defense put together two great halves against a really good offense?

"It's a mindset, it's a mentality, it's the attitude, it's the approach," safety D'Cota Dixon said. "Now we've got to make that happen for a 60-minute ballgame, which is a good thing. We haven't played our best game yet."

Now that's something that should make people nervous.


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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.