NCF Nation: Ethan Armstrong

Oddball is coming to the Big Ten in 2014.

After spreading through the NFL and much of college football, odd defenses -- with three down linemen instead of four -- will be more visible in the Big Ten this season. Three Big Ten teams -- Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana -- will operate mainly with three linemen and four linebackers. Although the Terrapins and Hoosiers prefer the hybrid label for their defenses, all three units will show alignments somewhat foreign to the conference.

In 2012, all 12 Big Ten teams used base defenses featuring four down linemen. Defenses with odd fronts had made cameos at places like Michigan and Indiana in the past -- Northwestern considered moving to a 3-4 early in Pat Fitzgerald's tenure but has since elected to remain in a 4-3 -- but unlike the NFL, where about half of the teams use odd fronts, the Big Ten steered clear of the trend.

[+] EnlargeDave Aranda
AP Photo/David StlukaWisconsin coordinator Dave Aranda installed a 3-4 scheme last season, and the Badgers finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg).
Last season, Wisconsin installed the 3-4, which the new coaching staff had used at Utah State. Indiana hopes to upgrade a perennially poor defense as it uses more of a 3-4 look under new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. Maryland will keep its scheme -- three linemen, four linebackers but not the traditional two-gap approach seen with 3-4 defenses -- as it transitions from the ACC.

"[Big Ten teams] don't see an odd front every week," Knorr told ESPN.com. "Being multiple, giving them different looks, something they haven't seen, hopefully that's an advantage for us."

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda always planned to install a 3-4 at Wisconsin. He just wasn't sure the Badgers had the personnel to do it in Year 1. They needed a nose tackle who could occupy two blockers, and outside linebackers with the speed-size mix to do it all. Fortunately, Beau Allen filled the nose position and Ethan Armstrong and Brendan Kelly occupied the outside spots.

Wisconsin finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed (16.3 ppg), rush yards allowed (102.5 ypg), total yards allowed (305.1 ypg) and third-down conversions against (30.6 percent). Aranda likes having an extra linebacker to defend spread offenses, and the 3-4 also has the flexibility to stop the traditional offenses for which the Big Ten is known.

"The power run fits in well with the 3-4," Aranda said.

Indiana will mix three- and four-man fronts, but like Aranda, Knorr inherits players he thinks can fill the critical roles in the 3-4. Nick Mangieri and Zack Shaw, who played defensive end in the previous system, have the ability to blitz from the perimeter or drop back in coverage.

"The offenses are so wide open, and you have to be able to cover the entire field," Knorr said. "Having the ability to drop eight at times, gives you an extra guy in coverage. Having the ability to have five guys in a great position to blitz right away gives you the versatility we're looking for, while being able to keep our disguise."

The disguise, according to Aranda, is what can set 3-4 defenses apart. He wants to keep offenses guessing about the fourth rusher: Will it be the weakside inside linebacker? The strongside outside linebacker? A safety? A cornerback?

As long as the outside linebackers have the ability to both rush and cover, without giving up too much, defensive play-callers can really mix things up.

"I know a lot of teams will be confused and we'll cause a lot of uncertainty and chaos for the offense," Indiana linebacker David Cooper said. "I think we'll do great in the Big Ten."

Maryland typically will use four linebackers, but doesn't feature the massive defensive linemen seen in standard two-gap, 3-4 looks. The Terrapins last season generated pressure both from the linebacker spot (Marcus Whitfield had nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss) and the line (end Andre Monroe had 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss). They return nine defensive starters.

Aranda used to visit Maryland defensive coordinator Brian Stewart when Stewart coached in the NFL under Wade Phillips, a longtime 3-4 defense practitioner. Aranda looks forward to seeing how other odd defenses fare in the Big Ten this season.

"Part of the issue with us last year is we'd go into games not knowing how people would block us," Aranda said. "That works both ways because people don't know how we're going to line up, either, or at least that first year. Now that film's out, but it definitely helps to me when you see someone play Indiana or someone play Maryland, you can see how they're lining up vs. 3-4."

Will the 3-4 keep spreading around the Big Ten? Defensive line has been the league's strongest position in recent years, as players in traditional end or tackle roles have gone on to the NFL in droves.

"There's such a fertile ground for defensive linemen in our area," Aranda admits. "We're trading some of those guys for linebackers and secondary players. Our corners and our safeties are as much our pass-rushers as our D-linemen are.

"There has to be a decision or a philosophy, somewhere along the line, of where you're going with it."

Depending on the results at Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, more Big Ten teams could choose to be odd.
Foot problems cost Wisconsin's David Gilbert most of the 2011 season.

The hope is Friday's surgery will prevent Gilbert from missing any meaningful time when the games begin this fall. Gilbert, who started at defensive end last season, but will play more outside linebacker in the team's new set, will undergo surgery to repair ligament damage in his right foot and miss the rest of spring practice.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports Gilbert has had the injury since the fourth game of last season. Although he appeared in all 14 contests (13 starts) and recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles, the issue hasn't gone away and Gilbert hasn't participated in Wisconsin's first few spring workouts.

From the State Journal:
"We thought it was just turf toe, but it's something a lot worse," Gilbert said Wednesday. "We're just going to try and get it fixed and get back for the season. ... But I feel very good about it. It's something people have had, so I'm not too worried about it."

Gilbert saw an orthopedic specialist in Minneapolis on Tuesday and learned the injury was more serious than originally thought. He will return to the same specialist for the surgery.

The 6-foot-4, 247-pound senior twice broke his right foot during the 2011 season, missing all but four games. He hopes to return by June, but placed no timetable on his recovery, noting that rehab this time will be "very discretionary" because he's entering his final season.

Gilbert has looked forward to playing in Wisconsin's new defense, which will operate from the 3-4 much more than the previous scheme. But like several other projected defensive starters dealing with injuries -- linebacker Ethan Armstrong (shoulder), defensive tackle Beau Allen (ankle) and defensive end Brendan Kelly (undisclosed) -- Gilbert will have to master the mental elements of the new scheme before returning to the field for fall camp.
Wisconsin junior linebacker Chris Borland will miss today's game against Ohio State because of a hamstring injury.

Borland sustained the injury last week against Indiana. He had planned to test out the leg in warmups but isn't dressed for the game. Conor O'Neill will get the start at outside linebacker alongside senior Mike Taylor, while Ethan Armstrong slides inside for the Badgers.

The hope is Borland returns in time for the Big Ten title game Dec. 1. He ranks in the top 11 in the Big Ten in tackles (82), sacks (4.5), tackles for loss (9) and forced fumbles (3). Big loss for the Badgers.

Wisconsin running back James White could start for almost any team in the country.

When Montee Ball said he was coming back for his senior season, White, a junior in line to start only one season, could have looked to play elsewhere. No one would have blamed him for transferring. But the option never entered his mind. He couldn't wait to back up one of his best friends and help Wisconsin try to win another Big Ten title.

White's opportunity arrived Saturday against Minnesota, both before and after Ball briefly left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter. The junior delivered in a big way, racking up 175 rush yards and three touchdowns on only 15 carries as Wisconsin beat Minnesota 38-13 to retain Paul Bunyan's Axe for a record ninth consecutive time. Ball wasn't too shabby himself with 166 rush yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, but White carried the offense for stretches.

The Badgers' run game was too much for a Gophers team led by quarterback Philip Nelson, who made his collegiate debut and started the game. With MarQueis Gray (knee) still hobbled and Max Shortell ineffective in Big Ten games, Gophers coach Jerry Kill burned Nelson's redshirt in Week 8, a debatable decision that looked a bit better by the end of the day.

Nelson not surprisingly had mixed results, racking up 149 pass yards, 67 rush yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. He made some nice throws into traffic and showed good mobility in an offense that requires it. Nelson also made some freshman mistakes, like a fourth-quarter pass picked off by linebacker Ethan Armstrong. Minnesota went 1-for-10 on third down. Still, the Gophers' quarterback of the future certainly could be the quarterback of the present, at least until Gray gets healthier.

But Wisconsin had too much firepower, even on the day where the offense looked choppy at times. Once again, the Badgers turned it on in the fourth quarter, as Ball returned from injury to cap an 11-play, 60-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run. After Nelson's second interception, Ball raced in from 44 yards out -- game, set, axe. Wisconsin's offensive production has steadily increased during the course of the season, and especially as recent games have worn on.

White and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis kept Wisconsin's offense afloat in the first half. White had seven rushes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, while Abbrederis had two leaping receptions for 68 yards. The rest of the team accounted for just 34 yards, as Minnesota consistently put pressure on freshman quarterback Joel Stave, who looked good on play-action passes but not much else.

Wisconsin took another step toward Indianapolis, and Bret Bielema's team seems to be getting stronger as the year goes on. Minnesota, meanwhile, dropped its third straight league game. The Gophers try to regroup next week against Purdue.

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