MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in total defense. The Badgers believe they still have plenty of room to improve on that side of the ball.
The next step is getting the ball back by producing turnovers rather than forcing punts.
Wisconsin (1-1) has only one takeaway through its first two games. That came on a fourth-quarter interception by Donte Burton in a 34-7 blowout of Eastern Michigan.
“Any chance we get to create turnovers, we’ve got to do it,” Wisconsin safety Scott Nelson said.
The 18th-ranked Badgers realize that will be difficult Saturday as they match up with former teammate Jack Coan in a highly anticipated showdown with No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Coan was Wisconsin’s starting quarterback for 18 games from 2018-19 but injured his foot last fall, lost his job to Graham Mertz and eventually transferred.
Wisconsin’s players respected Coan so much that a group of them, including Nelson, helped him move to Notre Dame’s campus earlier this year. They understand how well Coan protects the football.
Although Coan threw a pick-six and lost a fumble in Notre Dame’s 32-29 victory over Toledo, he has been intercepted only 10 times out of 535 career pass attempts.
“He’s going to sit in that pocket and he knows how to read defenses really well,” Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “He’s not going to make any risky decisions. He’s not going to put the ball where it’s not a good place to put it.”
Wisconsin’s defense represents the toughest challenge yet for a Notre Dame offense that has struggled due to an uncharacteristically ineffective line. Wisconsin has allowed just 194.5 yards per game to rank below only No. 14 Iowa State (192.7) among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
The Badgers are allowing only 33 yards rushing per game, the lowest average of any FBS program. Wisconsin ranks 23rd in yards allowed per play (4.37) and eighth in yards allowed per carry (1.83).
The Badgers are facing a Notre Dame offense that has allowed 14 sacks through its first three games. The only FBS teams to give up more are Central Michigan and Southern Mississippi with 16 each.
Notre Dame ranks 115th out of 130 FBS teams in yards rushing per game (105.7) and 122nd in yards per carry (2.94). Injuries have forced the Irish to start a different left tackle in each of their three games, though they’re hoping Michael Carmody (ankle) returns this week.
The Irish must play as efficiently as possible against Wisconsin, which leads the nation in average time of possession (40:57).
“We’ve got to keep their defense on the field,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got to be productive and we’ve got to sustain some drives ourselves.”
Notre Dame has compensated for its lack of a consistent rushing attack by producing big plays. The Irish’s three touchdowns in a 27-13 victory over Purdue on Saturday came on pass completions of 39 and 62 yards, plus a Kyren Williams 51-yard carry.
That’s one area where Wisconsin has been somewhat vulnerable.
The Badgers allowed Jahan Dotson to score on a 49-yard catch and set up another touchdown with a 42-yard reception in a 16-10 season-opening loss to Penn State. Wisconsin lost despite controlling possession for over 42 minutes because Dotson had those two big catches and the Nittany Lions had a plus-3 edge in turnover margin.
“They are similar (to Penn State) in that way,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “They’re going to throw the ball vertically down the field. They’ve been a big-play offense. That’s kind of swung momentum in their last couple of games in a big way.”
Notes: The Wisconsin defense will also get a lift this week from the return of Leo Chenal, who ranked second on the team in tackles last season but missed the Badgers’ first two games after testing positive for COVID-19. ... Wisconsin officials say cornerback Faion Hicks and safety Collin Wilder are questionable for Saturday’s game after neither played against Eastern Michigan.
AP freelance writer John Fineran contributed to this report.
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