It wasn’t Gary Andersen’s welcome-to-the-Big-Ten moment, but the University of Wisconsin’s victory at Iowa last November — or, more accurately, the week after that 28-9 victory — did reveal the essence of the conference to the Badgers football coach.
“Our game after Iowa, we were one sore football team,” Andersen said. “I’m sure they were, too. In the Big Ten, you’d better deal with that.”
As college football has gravitated toward pass-oriented spread offenses, the Big Ten has followed along. Grudgingly in some cases, but the league that gave us “three yards and a cloud of dust” has become more wide open over the years. Most Big Ten teams, however, haven’t deviated totally from their roots.
“The physicality of the league is still there,” said Andersen, now in his second year at UW. “A lot of people I’ve heard state that there’s not as many teams that try to pound the ball. But the physicality and what it takes to sustain and maintain a team throughout the week is important as you go through the season.”
UW will find out just how important this season.
Andersen and his defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, want a defense like the one they had at Utah State in 2012. You know, the one that came to Madison and held the Badgers to 234 yards and nine points (remember, Kenzel Doe had a long punt return for a touchdown) in a 16-14 UW victory.
That Utah State defense was small, fast, deceptive and aggressive, which is similar to the defense Andersen hopes to develop at UW. He didn’t have the personnel to make that happen totally last year and probably won’t for another year or two, but the 14th-ranked Badgers will play defense more like Andersen wants this season.
That makes the all-new front seven, and the three-man line in particular, the most important factor in UW’s success during a season that starts Saturday night against 13th-ranked LSU in Houston.
This is a brave new world for the Badgers on defense. Usually, their line is built around behemoths who can square up and slug it out in the trenches against Big Ten opponents.
For the first time in years, there won’t be a 300-pounder on UW’s line. Senior Warren Herring, expected to flip-flop between nose guard and end, will be the heaviest starter at 283 pounds. Backup nose guard Arthur Goldberg, a sophomore, is the biggest lineman in the rotation at 290. The players who best symbolize the transition are redshirt freshmen Chikwe Obasih (268) and Alec James (259), two ends with speed and athleticism but not much bulk.
The result will be a smaller, faster defense, one that will attack more and employ more schemes and personnel groupings, one that will rely on movement to make up for its lack of size. But can such a defense hold up against the run over the course of a Big Ten season?
Even Andersen is asking himself that question. His Utah State defense battled UW’s power running game on even terms two years ago, but the cumulative effect of playing a Big Ten opponent every week can wear down a smaller defense over the course of a season. That is especially true in the new West Division, where UW, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota — all run-first teams — reside.
“That is a concern,” Andersen said. “Hopefully, we can get the right mix and be built like a team that can handle that. We don’t have a (330-pound) Beau Allen this year. We recruited some young kids that we believe are going to be big.”
Of course, UW would prefer to be big, fast and physical along the line. Only a few schools can consistently recruit at that level, however, and the rest have to make do with what they have.
Make no mistake, though, this UW staff will take small and fast over big and slow any time.
“If we were to all have our way, we would want big and fast,” Aranda said. “You want it all, right? You want your cake and eat it too. So with the amount of seniors that are leaving, it’s like, who’s left? Who’s going to step on up? We’ve got a lot of youth. When we’re recruiting that youth, let’s get the biggest, fastest guys we can. I think to an extent we’ve done that. But if it comes down to it, if we can’t get the big, fast, strong guy, let’s get the fast guy and let’s put on the weight. Let’s build him up.
“That’s a process, and our guys have done a great job. You look at Alec James, you look at Chikwe and the weight they’ve put on. We’re talking about redshirt freshmen. If you were to step back and I’m fortunate enough to still be around in two, three years and they’re getting to be seniors, I think you’ll have a 300-pound guy that’s an athlete, that’s a monster making plays.”
Until UW gets there, the coaches will walk a fine line between being fast enough to run with spread teams and big and physical enough to hold up against the power running teams of the Big Ten. The defense fared reasonably well against UW’s vaunted power running game throughout camp, but can it do the same against the run-oriented Tigers in the opener and especially over the course of the Big Ten season?
“With the immediacy of now, that those young guys have got to play, that is a good question,” Aranda said. “We’re trying to build it around their strengths, with movement and stemming and not always playing straight up. I think that’s the smart thing to do.”
Time will tell.