Wisconsin’s defense has provided plenty of reasons to be optimistic given the progress it has made through the first three games of its young 2014 campaign.
The Badgers came into the year having to cope with the loss of eight defensive starters from last season. That unit was among the strongest in the country; it finished the 2013 season 6th in the FBS in scoring defense and 7th in total yardage defense, and held opposing offenses to three-and-outs 44.2 percent of the time.
The graduation of starters on all three levels of the defense meant that 2014’s team had to quickly mesh together new talent in order to match the efficiency of past years. Thus far, it appears that Wisconsin has built a unit that may prove to be very reliable and should develop consistency with the more snaps it sees together.
There is no getting around the fact that the 28-24 loss to LSU Aug. 30 was a team-wide train wreck, but there were positives that the Badgers’ defense could take out of it.
The absence of redshirt senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski and redshirt senior nose guard Warren Herring due to injuries left the Badgers’ front seven without two of its most experienced linemen in the fourth quarter, a difficult hurdle for any team to get over.
Although UW gave up 21 points in the second half, the offense did little to help. The Badgers’ time of possession in the half was an abysmal 11:04, as it punted three times and turned the ball over twice in their final five drives, giving the defense little time to regroup.
LSU had excellent starting field position, beginning each of its second half scoring drives on its own 37-yard line at worst. Given that the Tigers had managed 13 points through three quarters, UW was actually in excellent position to put the game away before the disastrous 15-point fourth quarter.
Western Illinois was exactly the type of opponent that the battered defense needed to face after the heartbreaking loss.
Wisconsin, with Zagzebski back in the lineup, clamped down on the Leathernecks, holding them to just 3.2 yards a play to coast to a 37-3 win. WIU managed a lone field goal in the second quarter, and finished the game with 162 yards of total offense.
Redshirt senior linebacker Marcus Trotter and senior linebacker Derek Landisch emerged as the leaders of the defense via their enthusiasm and playmaking capability. Each player recorded six tackles on the game, as Trotter’s quickness to the ball and Landisch’s ability to fill gaps and play larger than his 6-foot, 231-pound frame were on full display.
The Badgers were expected to dominate Western Illinois, but the turbulence the week before still made it refreshing to see UW make big plays and consistently stuff the opposing offense.
Wisconsin’s 68-17 stomping of Bowling Green was the most complete defensive performance to date.
Bowling Green came in to the Sept. 20 matchup averaging 520.7 yards per game, a number achieved through its breakneck pace, running a play every 17.9 seconds on average. The Falcons, who are favored to win the Mid-American Conference, provided a formidable test of Wisconsin’s conditioning, downfield coverage and ability to stay organized and communicate under duress. The Badgers had an answer for each of these key points.
Wisconsin looked comfortable and was quick to the ball, allowing only 271 total yards. The Falcons averaged 4.4 yards per play and were successful on just two of its 16 third down conversions. The Badgers never appeared flustered by Bowling Green’s no-huddle scheme, designed to gradually wear out defenses.
The secondary was particularly impressive against Bowling Green’s prolific passing attack, as proven cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary played tight man-to-man defense on the edges, while safety Michael Caputo continued his already impressive season in coverage over the top. Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke completed 13-of-28 passes for 163 yards, and was picked off by freshman safety Lubern Figaro early in the second quarter when Bowling Green had marched to Wisconsin’s 8 yard line.
Communication was key for Wisconsin, as it was constantly substituting different packages to match Bowling Green’s personnel groups, which ranged from five wide receiver spreads to triple running back sets. Inexperienced defenses struggle with managing these changes, but the Badgers were able to maintain their composure and make adjustments on the fly.
Given the small sample size, it’s difficult to evaluate how the Badgers’ defense will fair in the next few weeks. UW has allowed an average of 16 points and 266 yards per game, and has held opponents to a 27.9% success rate on third down conversions. While these numbers look good on paper, the Badgers will have to build off the lessons from LSU, the confidence gained against Western Illinois and the consistency developed against Bowling Green in order to continually improve.