The plays are seared into the memories of everyone in the University of Wisconsin football program.
Hail Mary passes in the final minute by Michigan State and Ohio State that cost the Badgers an undefeated regular season. Two long touchdown runs by Oregon blur De’Anthony Thomas in the Rose Bowl.
UW’s defense learned the hard way last season that when you finish 11-3 and every loss is by six or fewer points, big plays matter even more than usual.
“That’s how defense is,” tackle Ethan Hemer said. “You can play great 99 percent of the time and that one time you don’t, it’s a bad defense.”
UW didn’t play great defense quite that often — co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash estimates “it felt good” about 85 to 90 percent of the time — but you get the idea. The Badgers’ inability to prevent big plays, especially against elite opponents, cost them dearly last season.
To be fair, so did their inability to block for the punter. But the Badgers rectified that problem in time for the Big Ten Conference title game and the Rose Bowl. That wasn’t the case on defense.
“We played a lot of good football and then a few plays here and there — the long runs and obviously the Hail Marys — would make us look bad,” linebacker Chris Borland said. “That’s the thing about defense. You can play well all game and if you give up two long plays, it can cost the team the victory.”
Armed with a new mantra — Triple A, Bar None — the Badgers’ goal is to eliminate the breakdowns and therefore the big plays that were so costly last season. The thing is, if they can generate a more consistent pass rush and become more assignment-sure in the secondary, the Badgers have a good chance of pulling that off.
Despite losing five starters, the defense has more speed in the secondary, more pass rushers in the front seven and more overall game experience. Mostly, though, it should have a new mentality, which is where Triple A, Bar None comes in.
“What we’re trying to do is create an identity,” Ash said. “It’s something I put together: Anybody, anytime, anyplace, bar none. We want to be the type of defense that any time the ball’s down and it’s time to play, we’re going to go play.”
A better motto might be Triple E, Bar None — everybody, everytime, everyplace — because it was consistency that UW lacked more than anything else last season. Indeed, the overall numbers were terrific. In the national rankings, the defense was fourth in passing yards, 13th in scoring and 15th in total yards.
But against the few high-powered offenses that UW faced, the numbers weren’t nearly as good. In four games against Michigan State (twice), Ohio State and Oregon, UW allowed 154 points. In the other 10 games on the schedule, it allowed 132.
UW, which defines big plays as a pass over 25 yards and a run over 15, surrendered 10 big-play touchdowns in those four games. The Badgers gave up only three such scoring plays in their other 10 games.
“You can play a lot of good football, but the thing that you always remember as a defense is giving up big plays,” tackle Beau Allen said. “As a defense last year, we gave up too many big plays. One thing we’re trying to focus on this year is just being more consistent because we did play some good football.”
So what’s it going to take for UW to shut off the big-play faucet against everybody on the schedule?
More consistent play in the secondary, first of all. Shelton Johnson and Dezmen Southward give the Badgers uncommon — for them — size and speed at safety and the return of steady cornerback Devin Smith from injury will help greatly. But cornerback Marcus Cromartie, thrust into a starting role when Smith went down, must show improvement for the unit to solidify.
An improved pass rush is a major emphasis as well. UW never found a dynamic rusher last year and athletic end David Gilbert, who had three sacks in four games before breaking his foot, is the best hope. However, UW has more options this year and Ash sounds like he’ll use them all, including end Brendan Kelly, much improved after finally shaking the injury bug; Allen, who has the makings of a disruptive inside pass rusher; and Borland, who for injury reasons hasn’t been used much as a pass rusher since he broke onto the scene with five sacks in 2009.
Finally, the entire unit has more experience. Of the projected lineup, only Allen hasn’t started a game, and he’s played in all 27 games since he arrived on campus. That should lead to a greater understanding of assignments and, theoretically anyway, fewer mistakes.
“I think it comes down to every guy doing his job on every play,” Borland said. “The offensive coordinators and players in this league are good enough to find the one guy who forgets what to do or the one guy who goes in the wrong gap, so everybody has to be focused every play. There’s really no other way to right those wrongs.”
If that’s not seared into the minds of everyone at UW, it never will be.