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Thursday, December 29, 2011
Wisconsin's defense tries to get up to speed

By Brian Bennett

If it's bowl season, that must mean it's time for people to question whether or not Wisconsin has enough speed to compete.

That's a more reliable refrain than any Christmas song around the holidays. The Badgers heard the questions when they played Florida State in 2009, Miami in 2010 and last year against TCU. So, of course, that same old tune is popping up again for the Rose Bowl showdown versus Oregon.

"I remember hearing a line about this game, that the headline is going to be speed versus power," Wisconsin center Peter Konz said Wednesday. "I was like, 'Where have you been the last four years?'"

Keshawn Martin
Linebacker Chris Borland (44) and the Wisconsin defense have a tall task ahead of them at the Rose Bowl. "Oregon is probably faster than every defense in the nation," Borland said.
So, yes, Wisconsin's quickness or supposed lack thereof is a tired storyline and one that was overblown to begin with. Except that there is a legitimate speed concern looming in this game, one that has little to do with the Badgers' athleticism. It's the same problem everyone who plays the Ducks has: how to prepare for, and stop, their freakishly fast offense.

"Oregon is probably faster than every defense in the nation," Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. "We're not unique in that."

Hardly anyone can simulate the rapid pace at which Oregon plays. Chip Kelly's offense likes to sprint to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball before the defense sets. Wisconsin has come up with a few ways to try and get ready for that.

For the first time since he's been a head coach, Bret Bielema said he has ended bowl practices with conditioning work for the defense. The Badgers' first-team offense has run a lot of two-minute drill situations against the first-team defense to give them a high-tempo look.

Wisconsin is using two separate scout team offenses in practice. After one scout squad finishes a play, the second unit hustles to the line to snap another play in an effort to simulate Oregon's speed.

"We use two waves in order to get two plays off in about 20 seconds," Borland said. "I think we've been able to emulate the tempo pretty well."

A main problem against the Ducks is getting the defense set before they yell hike.

"So many of their big plays come against defenses that are actually looking over to the sideline when they're ready to snap the ball," defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "One of our No. 1 priorities is just getting lined up."

To that end, Ash has simplified many of the defensive calls for this game. Borland, the middle linebacker, will use shorter phrases and quicker hand gestures to signal his teammates where to be. Wisconsin will probably rely less on making checks at the line, which is OK since Oregon often runs the same plays repeatedly. The challenge will be getting the assignments right while moving at a higher speed.

"You have to be in great physical shape and also have a great mental capacity to be ready for all the things they're going to throw at us," safety Aaron Henry said. "It's so quick that everybody has to know where to be play from there."

Opposing teams have tried all sorts of ways to prepare for the Ducks. The list of those who have succeeded is a short one.

"In all reality, there's really not much you can do to simulate it until we get to the stadium and play the opening series to see how fast it is and how we're going to match up," Ash said.

Wisconsin's defense doesn't get much attention because of how large a shadow the team's offense casts (quite literally, in the case of the offensive linemen). But Ash's side of the ball ranked No. 8 nationally in total defense and sixth in the FBS in points allowed at just 17 per game. While the last-minute, long touchdown passes by Michigan State and Ohio State stick in most people's minds, the Badgers quietly excelled in just about every facet defensively this season. Bielema ays Ash -- who took over for Dave Doeren as coordinator before this season -- and his assistants are as good as any defensive coaches he's worked with at making in-game adjustments.

"Bret's done a great job of hiring the right people on the defensive staff who have similar philosophies," Ash said. "We know our package inside and out, and we know our strengths and weaknesses. We game plan, but we also make a lot of contingency plans for things that can be potential problems. And I think our players can adjust."

It's likely that, with a month's prep time and all the wrinkles Kelly injects into the Oregon attack, Wisconsin will be forced to make major changes on the fly Monday evening. If there's a question about the Badgers' speed worth asking, that's the one.