Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is blaming his team's two losses on Hail Mary passes, which likely kept the Badgers out of the national championship game, on cornerback Devin Smith's broken left foot that ended his season after the second game.
“I honestly think if he had played the entire year the way he was playing at the time he got hurt, we probably never would've lost … those plays that hit, they were going after his backup, Marcus Cromartie,” Bielema said to ESPN this offseason.
Smith's injury against Oregon State forced junior Cromartie into a more prominent role.
“Devin was playing as good of football as we'd ever seen. For us here at Wisconsin, for us to have one of those special, special, maybe national championship-type seasons, you have to stay healthy,” Bielema said.
Last season, the Badgers' pass defense ranked fourth in the country even without Smith, allowing just 163.6 ypg.
“At Wisconsin, we have a lot of really good players. The one thing we don't have, maybe, is a lot of really good depth,” Bielema said at media days.
The Badgers lost safety Aaron Henry and All-Big Ten cornerback Antonio Fenelus, both of whom had four interceptions last year.
This year the secondary returns Smith, a more experienced Cromartie, and safety Shelton Johnson. All three are seniors and could improve on a secondary that had 12 interceptions last year.
Johnson tied for the team lead with four interceptions, including three in the last four games. Cromartie also finished the season strong, registering six tackles in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and the Rose Bowl against Oregon.
Linebacker Mike Taylor, who had the third-most tackles in the country with 150, anchors one of the deepest units during Bielema's tenure.
“The thing on defense, personally, is it's just fun to play with those guys,” Taylor said at media days. “Shelton Johnson is one of the better safeties I've gotten to play with at Wisconsin. [FS] Dezmen Southward is just athletically gifted. If we can bring all those things together and gel and depend on each other and trust each other, I think we could have a really good season.”
Bielema said his coaches discussed the late-game coverage collapses, but he figured his players grew from the losses.
“Sometimes we all learn not to touch a hot stove after you get burned," Bielema said. "As players and as coaches, you kind of have to learn things by unfortunately living through them. We lived through two very painful experiences."
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