They call them tell-the-truth Sundays when the University of Wisconsin defensive players watch film from the previous day’s game and try to be as honest as possible about what they see.
There was plenty to look at with a critical eye in regard to the run defense this past Sunday.
The Badgers entered the game at Penn State leading the Big Ten Conference in rushing defense, but allowed tailback Zach Zwinak to rush for 179 yards on 36 carries in the Nittany Lions’ 24-21 overtime victory.
“Up front we take a lot of pride in our run defense,” senior defensive end Brendan Kelly said Wednesday. “That’s something, when we came into meetings Sunday morning, we told the truth. We definitely wanted to get that off our chests.”
Zwinak was the first running back and second player overall to rush for 100 yards against UW this season. The other was Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who rushed for 107 yards in a 30-27 win over the Badgers on Sept. 29 in Lincoln, Neb.
UW’s defense gets another shot at Martinez and the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten title game on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
“That was definitely uncharacteristic of our defense,” UW senior strong safety Shelton Johnson said. “We haven’t given that up since the beginning of the year. It’s something you hang your hat on — other teams not being able to run on us.”
Nebraska has the Big Ten’s best rushing attack, averaging 252.2 yards per game, which should get a boost from the return of senior Rex Burkhead. He missed almost five full games with a sprained left knee before playing in the second half of Nebraska’s 13-7 win over Iowa last Friday.
That’s in addition to speedster Ameer Abdullah, who started when Burkhead was out and has rushed for 1,071 yards, and possibly the conference’s best running quarterback in Martinez, who has 833 rushing yards in the spread-option attack.
Nebraska is the only team to rush for more than 200 yards in a game against UW with 259.
Like Burkhead, Zwinak is a physical north-south runner. But Penn State ran a pro-style offense, with a couple new twists, that gave the Badgers problems.
“Give Penn State a ton of credit,” defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said. “They did a really nice job with their play selection and there were some mistakes on our part. We missed (middle linebacker) Chris Borland, without a shadow of a doubt. All credit goes to Penn State on their performance.”
Borland, who missed the past two games with a hamstring injury, is expected to play on Saturday.
Burkhead rushed 16 times for 69 yards in the second half against Iowa after not playing in the first half.
With Nebraska trailing 7-3 at halftime, coach Bo Pelini made the decision to go to Burkhead.
“We’re only going to play him if we needed him,” Pelini said. “I thought we needed him.”
Burkhead picked up a fourth-and-1 on his first series, which led to a field goal. He scored the go-ahead touchdown with a 3-yard run in the third quarter. Then he helped pick up a couple key first downs after the Cornhuskers were backed up inside their own 1-yard line following a punt late in the fourth quarter.
“(Burkhead) does a great job of turning a potential TFL (tackle for loss) into a 2-yard gain,” Borland said. “That doesn’t really show up in the stat books, but it kind of saves their offense at times.
“Sometimes you’ll have things bottled up. Instead of it being second-and-12, it’s second-and-8. That changes their play-calling. I really applaud him in his ability to do that.”
Burkhead declared himself totally fit this week and capable of doing whatever is needed.
“I’m feeling great, no soreness or swelling after the game or the next day,” he said. “It was definitely a good sign. Whatever the coaches want me to do, I’m ready for it. If that’s 30, 20, 10 carries, whatever it is, I’m up for.”
UW’s defense is allowing 111.3 rushing yards per game for an average of 3.4 yards per carry, which ranks 16th nationally. The eight rushing touchdowns it has allowed are tied for the third-fewest in school history with the 2009 team.
Kelly said the tell-the-truth session on Sunday produced positive results in practice this week.
“I think it was great this week, seeing how some of the guys inside responded,” he said.