Being dynamite on defense in the red zone should come as no surprise for a University of Wisconsin football team with Dave Aranda as the defensive coordinator.
UW’s defense has allowed opponents inside the Badgers’ 20-yard line just 21 times this season. Of those drives, only eight have resulted in touchdowns.
That’s a red-zone touchdown percentage of 38.1 that leads all Football Bowl Subdivision defenses.
But as good as that looks, it’s still not quite to the level of Utah State a year ago. With Aranda as the defensive coordinator, the Aggies had the nation’s best touchdown percentage at 29.5 percent.
Clearly, Aranda has a keen grasp of red-zone defense, though it doesn’t stop him from worrying about what’s ahead.
After eight games, opposing teams have a pretty good idea of what UW’s defense will do in the red zone, Aranda said. So, offensive coordinators are scheming to find ways to beat it, starting with the game on Saturday at home against Brigham Young.
“The thing is, once you start to do something and do it well, then you’re going to see all of the ‘beaters’ to it,” Aranda said. “This is where it gets interesting, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”
As good as UW’s red-zone defense has been, it is close to being much better. Seven of the touchdowns came in two games — four by Arizona State, then three by Illinois after senior inside linebacker Chris Borland left the game with a hamstring injury. The only other game in which UW has allowed a red-zone touchdown was against Ohio State.
“Obviously, that creates some issues,” senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said of losing Borland against Illinois. “Some of it was what Illinois wanted to do and what it was going to do.
“We knew they were going to throw the ball, they have a talented quarterback and wide receivers. Part of it was Chris going out, and part of it was we didn’t execute well enough.”
Last week in a 28-9 win over Iowa, when Borland didn’t play due to an injury, the Hawkeyes were held to three field goals on four red-zone trips.
“I’m proud of our guys and how they competed,” Aranda said. “I thought that was a big part of this last game.”
Playing good red-zone defense starts with stopping the run, something the Badgers have done all season. They rank fifth in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 91 yards per game. Opponents are averaging 2.9 yards per carry, sixth-best among FBS defenses.
Within the red zone, Aranda breaks it down further. He calls one area, the “hybrid zone,” which is where teams are more likely to throw into the end zone. “That’s usually a take-a-shot-area,” Aranda said.
Starting at the 12-yard line, Aranda said, offenses get away from vertical plays and start going more horizontal.
“Your (defensive) calls in those situations need to be more of a horizontal nature,” Aranda said.
The one area where UW’s defense has been most vulnerable this season has been in long throws over the top. That’s an area that gets limited in the red zone due to a compressed field.
“You have to be more disciplined than any other area on the field because one mistake can get exposed,” Borland said. “I think a short field, though, helps us. One concern with our defense has been getting the top taken off, deep balls. We’ve been great other than that.
“The red zone, the offense doesn’t have that tool in their tool box. That works to our advantage.”
While Aranda’s schemes have been a factor, the players said a big part of red-zone success comes down to their mentality.
“We want to be at our best when our backs are against the wall,” Armstrong said. “We have a lot of leadership on this team, especially on our defense, to accomplish that.”
UW’s defense has reacted in a similar way after turnovers. Nine turnovers by the Badgers have led to one touchdown and three field goals.
“Put us in whatever spot you want to put us in, we’ll come out and perform the exact same (way),” senior safety Dezmen Southward said. “This year, compared to any I’ve been here, we’ve been the best I can remember. … It’s hard for some defenses to come out (in those situations) but we relish it.”
BYU’s offense has had problems converting in the red zone, ranking 70th nationally with an 82.1 conversion rate. It has a touchdown rate of 48.7 percent, with 19 TDs in 39 trips.
“If a team scores five field goals, more than likely, I’m going to bet our offense, as powerful and explosive as it can be, it will score three touchdowns to win us the game,” Southward said. “If you give up five touchdowns and 35 points, well, your chances decrease a lot, you’re putting your offense in a bind.
“It’s big time when you get stops down there. The other team doesn’t like taking field goals down there, it’s really frustrating.”