Friday, November 9, 2012
Overlooked Badgers 'D' under fire at IU
By Brian Bennett
All the major stories out of Wisconsin this year have come from the offensive side of the ball. The early offensive line troubles and the switching of position coaches early on. The quarterback shuffling. Montee Ball's slow start and then resurgence.
Hardly anybody every talks about the Badgers' defense. But then again, what else is new?
"We just have a workmanlike mentality, and we're comfortable with that," linebacker Chris Borland told ESPN.com. "We don't need to be in the limelight."
A quick glance at the numbers shows that we ought to be paying more attention to the oft-overlooked unit. Wisconsin is in the top half of the Big Ten in every defensive category and ranks in the top 17 nationally in such key stats as points allowed (17.6), yards allowed (311.3), rush defense (108.1) and third-down conversion defense (30.7 percent).
Of course, the Badgers also had good numbers last year. But one major difference between that defense and the 2012 model has been the lack of back-breaking big plays given up. Everyone remembers the Hail Mary versus Michigan State, the Braxton Miller miracle at Ohio State and the Oregon juggernaut from last season. There have been few such memorable breakdowns this year, aside from a couple of long touchdown passes allowed in games Wisconsin has won.
"The first thing we did in fall camp was, our coach took us through all the big plays we gave up in 2011," defensive back Marcus Cromartie said. "We told ourselves that we weren't going to do that this year. We feel like we're good enough that a team can't just nickel and dime us down the field."
Better depth and experience in the secondary has paid off, as has a surprisingly strong defensive line, which head coach Bret Bielema calls "as thick and as deep as we've had since I've been here." The front four has been able to apply pressure without much blitzing and be stout against the run. And having one of the best linebacker duos in the country with Borland and Mike Taylor makes everything work better.
For as good as the defense has been most of the year, though, it still smarts over its performance last time out. Michigan State drove 75 yards to tie the game near the end of regulation two weeks ago before winning in overtime, 16-13, at Camp Randall Stadium. That snapped the Badgers' 21-game home winning streak.
Chris Borland and the Badgers defense will face a stiff test this week against the prolific Hoosiers offense.
"I haven't really known what it's like to lose at home," Cromartie said. "So we're looking forward to a chance for us to get back on track."
That starts Saturday in a crucial Leaders Division game at Indiana, which figures to put as much pressure on the Wisconsin defense as anybody has all season. The Hoosiers have scored at least 24 points in each of their past 10 games, are averaging 33.1 points per game and boast the Big Ten's top passing offense.
Indiana often runs a no-huddle style that is designed to get defenses out of position and prevent them from substituting.
"Watching them on film from last week, some of the Iowa players would be standing straight up or not be in their stance, and [Indiana] lined up quickly to run a play," Cromartie said.
The Badgers got a taste of what it's like to prepare for that style of offense when they got ready for Oregon last year. The Ducks ended up not using too much no-huddle in the Rose Bowl, but Wisconsin's players learned a lesson.
"The main thing is just getting aligned," Borland said. "I've got to set the fronts and call the play, but after that it's on everybody else as far as getting aligned and getting their eyes in the right place quickly. I know that sounds simple, but that's what these hurry-up teams prey on."
With a new quarterback guiding the offense -- multiple reports have Curt Phillips making his first career start -- Wisconsin might not want to get into a track meet with the Hoosiers. So the defense will be under pressure to keep the score manageable. That's something the Badgers should get used to, because their final three games of the season -- Indiana this week, followed by Ohio State at home and then at Penn State -- come against some of the Big Ten's highest-scoring and most creative offenses.
How they stand up against those offenses may determine whether they make a second straight Big Ten championship game appearance. So the overlooked Badgers defense could be about to receive much more attention.
"The last three games -- and most importantly, this week against Indiana -- represent a big challenge for our defense," Borland said. "We're going to do everything we can, and we're excited for the challenge. This is how you'd want it."