Monday, April 23, 2012
Badgers defense looks to avoid meltdowns
By Brian Bennett
MADISON, Wis. -- The last time we saw Wisconsin's defense in a game, the Badgers were getting steamrolled by Oregon in the Rose Bowl, allowing 621 yards and 45 points.
The Ducks can make many defenses look bad, but a Big Ten champion isn't supposed to get punctured that severely. Badgers defensive coordinator Chris Ash said a handful of his players consistently lined up incorrectly or went to the wrong spots during that 45-38 loss on Jan. 2.
Oregon pulled out a few new wrinkles for the game, but that doesn't fully explain why a veteran defense with a month to prepare could have made so many fundamental mistakes.
"I've been searching for answers for a few months on that one," Ash told ESPN.com last week.
Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor, left, and Chris Borland combined for 293 tackles in 2011.
Mysteriousness surrounds much of what happened to Ash's side of the ball last season. The numbers say Wisconsin had a fantastic season on defense, as it finished 15th in the FBS in total defense and 13th in points allowed. Yet the lasting images of the Badgers' season revolve around the long passes given up at the end of losses to Michigan State and Ohio State and that Rose Bowl fiasco.
Last year's breakdowns hover over the team this spring and in some ways are guiding how the players are approaching this offseason preparation.
"Those things are fresh in our minds a little bit still," defensive tackle Ethan Hemer said. "We're definitely focusing more on the little things, making sure you're stepping right, you're in position, minimizing your missed alignments. We all realize that one play can make a big difference, and that requires us to be even sharper than we've been in the past. We don't want to be that team that gives up the big play."
This spring is about building depth as much as anything for the Badgers' defense. Only six starters return, while injuries have either shelved or slowed leading tacklers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland and projected starting defensive end David Gilbert. Starting cornerback Devin Smith is working himself into shape after a foot injury cost him most of 2011.
Borland and Taylor, who combined for 293 tackles last season, provide two anchors as one of the best linebacker combos in the country. Another strength could be at defensive tackle, where Hemer, Beau Allen and the emerging Warren Herring have all played well this spring. The defensive line still needs an explosive player on the edge, but the team is hopeful that Gilbert -- who played only four games last year and is out this spring with a foot injury -- can be that guy when healthy.
"When he got hurt, he was really starting to play at a high level," Ash said. "He's really one of the few guys we have who's naturally a pass-rusher."
The secondary lost two starting seniors in Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus, but Ash thinks Smith can be an all-conference cornerback this season. Dezmen Southward has replaced Henry at safety and continues to come along. He de-cleated running back Melvin Gordon on a crushing tackle during Saturday's scrimmage.
"We know we have to be the backbone of the defense," cornerback Marcus Cromartie said of the secondary. "We want to be the reason to win. We don't want to be a liability."
Wisconsin's defense has often been overshadowed by the team's offense, and last year the unit embraced its no-name status. This season, though, the players believe they have enough talent to forge their own identity.
"We feel like we deserve to be a defense that's on the radar," Smith said. "It starts with practice and film, but I think we can be one of those type defenses everybody talks about, like LSU and Alabama. We have to earn that respect."
It's a respect they'll have to earn by not allowing big plays and mental breakdowns to become the lasting images of 2012.