University of Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel remembers his reaction when seeing the name “Dave Aranda” light up his cellphone, a call that interrupted a relaxing New Year’s break in his hometown of Wisconsin Rapids.
Biegel had perhaps a better relationship with Aranda than any other player on the roster. He even claimed his willingness to take a bullet for the defensive coordinator in September.
Under the circumstances, however, Aranda was the last person he wanted to hear from.
He rarely called Biegel. For him to reach out two days after UW’s victory in the Holiday Bowl — in the midst of media reports that Aranda was a candidate for other coaching positions — Biegel knew what was coming before he answered the phone.
“I just walked into a quiet room,” Biegel said. “I knew it was about to be a conversation that I’d remember for a while.”
As expected, Aranda informed Biegel he was leaving UW after three seasons to become the defensive coordinator at LSU.
Eight months later, Biegel and the Badgers are preparing to open the season against the Tigers on Saturday at Lambeau Field, where Aranda will return to the state of Wisconsin and attempt to stop UW coach Paul Chryst’s offense in his first game since leaving Madison.
It creates a compelling dynamic rarely seen during Week 1 of the college football season, not to mention the game itself holds extreme importance to both programs. A loss for LSU could spell early trouble in the national title race, while UW may need an early boost before facing a brutally difficult start to conference play.
Chryst and Aranda are accustomed to watching their units going against each other every day in practice. The familiarity they share with each other could certainly play a factor Saturday, though Chryst believes that aspect of the game may not turn out to be a difference-maker.
He said that storyline has more credence when it comes to the in-conference battles the Badgers play year in and year out.
“We were in a stretch where we were playing Michigan State a bunch,” Chryst said of his days as a UW assistant coach from 2005-11. “We knew them. They knew us. Iowa, we knew them. I think it’s a little bit different than that, and in the end, it’s LSU and Wisconsin.
“We’re going to be different than what we were last year. What LSU will do will be different than what we did last year. It’ll have an impact, but I don’t know if anyone has the upper hand on it.”
UW’s also trying to make sure there won’t be any type of mental or emotional hurdles to clear entering Saturday’s game.
Badgers players claim they wouldn’t even be thinking about Aranda if the media didn’t continue to ask about him. They know from first-hand experience that the coach will make an enormous impact on LSU’s defense, but it only makes sense for UW’s offensive players to focus on those they’ll actually line up against Saturday.
“Through camp last year, we weren’t worried about Coach Aranda tackling us or Coach Aranda making a spin move on our tackle and getting to the quarterback,” UW senior running back Dare Ogunbowale said. “That was (Joe) Schobert. That was (Michael) Caputo. It’s the guys in the huddle that you know are going to be out there making the plays.”
The defensive players, of course, were the ones with a closer relationship with Aranda. Biegel and others, though, said they’ve separated out that emotion when preparing for Saturday’s game.
They may not have the opportunity to meet with Aranda until after the game, and perhaps the Badgers prefer it that way.
“At the end of the day, we’re just focused on the opponent,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. “Coach Aranda’s not on the field. He’s a great coach and he’s a great play-caller, but at the end of the day, it’s about executing our job and executing the game plan. That’s what we’re focused on.”
While the Badgers’ defense won’t be facing off against Aranda’s new LSU defense, players on that side of the ball for UW enter this season wanting to prove the unit won’t drop off because of his departure.
Under Aranda last season, the Badgers were the top scoring defense in the country while also ranking second in total defense, fourth in rushing defense and seventh in passing defense.
Not only will they be breaking in new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, but they also must overcome the loss of three key starters in the secondary.
For a variety of reasons, most outside of the program expect some type of drop-off from the defense this year. Sustaining that level would have been a difficult task for Aranda as well.
UW doesn’t believe that has to happen, and what better way to prove it than to perform like one of the nation’s top defenses in a nationally televised game on opening day, with Aranda looking on from the other sideline.
“We expect the same as far as success on the defensive side of the ball,” Shelton said. “We’ve done some really, really good things with Coach Aranda, and we’re proud of that, but this is a whole new year and it’s time to get rolling.
“Coach Wilcox is our coach now, so we’ve got to try to make some special memories with him.”