By now, it is obvious to all that the days of 44 points per game are over for the University of Wisconsin football team.
After three non-conference games, UW ranks dead last among the Big Ten Conference's 12 teams in points per game (16.3) and yards per game (276). Last season, it sometimes hit those totals with time to spare in the first half.
The Badgers' offense will get better, possibly as early as their non-conference home game against UTEP Saturday, but it probably won't improve enough to be the driving force behind a Big Ten championship team like it has been the last two seasons.
Out of necessity, that burden now falls on the defense. For the Badgers to be good this season, the defense has to be good. It's as simple as that.
UW's defense has been solid so far, ranking third in the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed (82), fourth in points allowed (15) and sixth in total yards allowed (322.7) per game while leading the team to a 2-1 start. However, its penchant for making mistakes in pass coverage and giving up big plays, a carryover from last season, has sabotaged some otherwise strong defensive efforts.
"We're pretty close," linebacker Chris Borland said. "This defense has a lot of potential. We continue to let up on a couple of plays. If not for that, we could be a really stellar defense."
UW will need a really stellar defense once the Big Ten season starts because it figures to be in many close, low-scoring games. More likely, the Badgers will need a dominant defense like the 2006 unit that allowed only 12.1 points per game in coach Bret Bielema's first season.
Actually, the 322.7 yards allowed per game so far are right in line with the defense's performance over the last four seasons. Problem is, UW's defense will have to be better than it has been because the Badgers aren't likely to win any shootouts.
"I think I was on record saying I thought our defense could be pretty good," Bielema said. "I'm excited about the way they're playing. But on the same account, I just see the ability to be even better than what they are."
If that ability comes out, the defense could give UW what it needs because there is a solid combination of experience and talent on that side of the ball.
The linebacking trio of Borland, Mike Taylor and Ethan Armstrong plays fast and furious. The line and the secondary have already exhibited quality depth as UW has suffered injuries in both areas. There is significant starting experience on all three levels.
On the flip side, generating drive-stopping plays, a shortcoming on defense last season, remains so again this season. The Badgers have not forced a turnover all season and they average only one quarterback sack per game. But even that would be palatable if they would just stop giving their opponents easy touchdowns.
"I know this," Bielema said. "They can run. I think they're athletic. We can't give up big plays. ... I don't think we need to take on any unnecessary risks at times."
UW has allowed six touchdowns in three games, all of them though the air. Four of those six scores were the result of mental mistakes, either players not fulfilling their assignments or coaches putting them in positions where they have little chance for success. The Badgers' curious inability to cover the wheel route almost cost them two home victories.
If UW can eliminate those mistakes and make opponents nickel-and-dime their way down the field, they're going to get more stops because most college offenses aren't consistent or patient enough to do that. As fundamental to UW's success as that sounds, the defense doesn't see itself as the team's savior.
"I think we just need to do our best to handle our job one at a time," co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. "There was improvement offensively (Saturday), which I know they're excited about. We feel like we have a defensive unit that can be pretty darn good, especially if we get some of these things cleaned up. That's where our focus has to be."
Actually, UW has the makings of a very good defense.
It would help if David Gilbert or Brendan Kelly would become a dominant pass rusher at end because the inside push has been fairly consistent and Borland is back harassing quarterbacks in blitz situations. It would also help if cornerback Marcus Cromartie would become more consistent in coverage. Mostly, though, it would help if everyone would get on the same page for the first time in several seasons.
"There's a phrase and a saying that the defense wins championships," Bielema said. "I think if we can continue to play good defense and put our guys in a (good) position, I'm not saying we're going to win championships, but I'm saying we've got a chance to be good and we have a chance to win this weekend."
This weekend would be a good place to start.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.