Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Wisconsin Badgers, Part 3, Defense
I began by taking a broad overview of the Wisconsin program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Badgers will do this season.
Two days ago, I scanned the 2012 Wisconsin offense and how it projects.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Wisconsin defense.
2011 scoring defense: 19.0 PPG (fourth in the conference)
Total defense: 316.3 YPG (third)
Rushing defense: 4.29 YPC (t-eighth)
Passing efficiency allowed: 120.45 (fifth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 5.0
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: third (2010)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: eighth (2008)
Returning starters: DE Brendan Kelly, DE David Gilbert (inj.), DT Ethan Hemer, LB Chris Borland, LB Mike Taylor, CB Marcus Cromartie, SS Shelton Johnson
Open positions: DT, LB, CB, FS
Defensive formation: 4-3
Defensive philosophy: moderate
Despite Bret Bielema's defensive background, Wisconsin is decidedly an offense-dominant team. Under Bielema, the offense has not only sold tickets, but it has also typically won the day.
However, this is a deceptive description of the Badger dynamic.
Other examples of offense-dominant teams include Oregon and Oklahoma State, both of which, like Wisconsin, were top-10 scoring offenses in 2011 and 2010. On the other hand, unlike Wisconsin, those offenses focused on keeping up the pace of the game, scoring fast and maximizing possessions.
Wisconsin's offense, as Badger fans know, is about power, maintaining drives and controlling the clock.
It is here that the defense is relevant.
Oregon and Oklahoma State score quickly. In effect, neither offense is on the field very long. This places a great deal of pressure on their defenses. The Cowboys have been last in the Big 12 time-of-possession two years in a row. The Ducks have been last and second-to-last in the Pac-12 for the past two seasons.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin's time-of-possession has been first in the Big Ten—and top-20 nationally—for the past three seasons.
This is a classic football dynamic as perfected by the Nebraska teams of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne—hold onto the ball, wear down the clock and keep the defense fresh, while at the same time, wearing down the opposing defense. It puts the defense in the optimum position to succeed.
Yet, unlike those Cornhusker teams of the 1960s-1990s, the Badger defense under Bielema has consistently underperformed given the dynamic of the team.
One could argue that last year's squad, which was the No. 13 scoring defense in the nation, played at an acceptable level, but last year's statistics are the beneficiary of a soft schedule as much as anything.
In 2011, UW played four AQ offenses with a pulse—Michigan State twice, Oregon and Nebraska.
Though NU was unquestionably a competitive offense, in 2011, they were one-dimensional. They were helpless if a defense could shut down their running game, which UW did.
That leaves the two games against MSU and the Rose Bowl vs. Oregon.
In those games, the Spartans scored 37 and 39 points respectively (one win and one loss), both point totals well above MSU's 31.0 PPG average on the year.
Meanwhile, Oregon thrashed the Badgers to the tune of 45 points, which was one point lower than their 46.1 PPG on the year.
One could also throw in a road loss to Ohio State, which hung 33 points on the Badgers, over a touchdown more than its 24.5 PPG average.
In short, the Badger defenses, for better or worse, have tended to be as much the product of a dominant offense as much as anything the defense has done.
Great individual players have been there—for example, J.J. Watt, O'Brien Schofield, Jack Ikegwuonu, or currently, Chris Borland—but the final results have been less than spectacular.
It is true that the only important statistic is wins and losses. However, when one considers the key losses from the last two seasons—two seasons in which the Badgers realistically could have been in the BCS National Championship Game—one notices a glaring number: 34.7.
34.7 PPG is how many points the Badger defense has let up in its three regular season losses over the last two seasons.
That 34.7 PPG was the only thing standing between UW and its opportunity for its first (and second) national championship ever.
The Badgers lose two full-time starters from last year's line, which allowed 4.29 YPC, and had the fifth-most sacks in the Big Ten.
There are some quality players in Madison. The problem is much the same as last year—which player will step up and be an individual difference-maker, a la J.J. Watt or O'Brien Schofield?
The Badgers might get some help from a healthy David Gilbert, who started the first four games in 2011 but missed the rest of the season with a foot injury (per ESPN).
He was dominant in those four games, notching three sacks, 3.5 tackles for losses and a forced fumble. Nevertheless, one has to consider the competition—UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois and South Dakota.
Otherwise, UW has a solid group of players. The other defensive end will be manned by returning starter senior Brendan Kelly or well-seasoned junior Pat Muldoon.
Two-year starter junior Ethan Hemer will man one defensive tackle spot, while the other will go to fellow junior Beau Allen. Both are space eaters, averaging 327 pounds. However, after giving up over four YPC last year, a great deal of responsibility will be placed on the juniors.
Wisconsin got unfortunate news when junior Jordan Kohout (per ESPN) announced his retirement due to recurrent migraines.
This will leave Muldoon as the only experienced depth on the roster.
The Badgers will field its typically decent front four, but outside of Gilbert, there doesn't look to be much hope of an individual playmaker. Also, depth is an issue as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel brought up.
Arguably the two best UW linebackers over the past decade currently reside in Madison.
Both Chris Borland and Mike Taylor battled health issues early in their careers. However, last season, for the first time, both were healthy and on the field at the same time, and the results were impressive.
Not only were the Badgers a top-20 scoring defense for the first time since 2006, but Taylor and Borland combined for just shy of 300 tackles.
Expect more of the same in 2012.
Also, Borland, being unquestionably the best and most versatile Badger on the field, might see some time as a rush defensive end/outside linebacker on passing downs. Scout.com reports that the coaches are experimenting with a "Badger package," which is a 3-3-5 scheme that Wisconsin flirted with last year.
Borland and Taylor's newest partner-in-crime is junior Ethan Armstrong, who will start on the strong side. He earned two starts last season, but missed the Big Ten championship game and the Rose Bowl due to injuries.
Juniors A.J. Fenton and Conor O'Neill, along with sophomores Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, will provide depth.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: Second
Last season, the Wisconsin secondary suffered an early setback (via Rivals) when starting cornerback Devin Smith was lost for the season following a foot injury.
Bielema has recently suggested (via Madison.com) that had Smith remained healthy, Wisconsin never would have lost the two games it did, and thus, would have been in the running for the national championship.
Unfortunately, Bielema is delusional or hyperbolic (I'd side with the latter). The Hail Mary that lost the game to MSU was a result of luck, and the final play of the OSU game was more the result of the line being unable to finish the play and the entire secondary, and not just one man, letting somebody get behind them.
That said, Smith was a starter in 2009, but lost the starting job to Antonio Fenelus in 2010. He was set to have a comeback year in 2011, but the injury derailed his season.
This year, Smith will lock down one cornerback, while returning starter Marcus Cromartie will start on the other side. Smith is the more talented of the two, but both are dependable. It remains to be seen if either is any more than dependable.
The top backups are sophomores Paniel Jean and Devin Gaulden.
The returning strong safety is senior Shelton Johnson. Johnson is an opportunistic player that led the team with four interceptions.
The starting free safety will be junior Dezmen Southward, who replaced departed all-conference free safety Aaron Henry.
As Madison.com's Tom Oates reported, the biggest issue with Wisconsin's defense last year was giving up big plays in big games. The end-of-the-game touchdown passes to MSU and OSU are the two biggest ones. However, as Oates noted, "UW, which defines big plays as a pass over 25 yards and a run over 15, surrendered 10 big-play touchdowns in those four games. The Badgers gave up only three such scoring plays in their other 10 games."
Big plays begin and end with the safeties—they're called safeties for a reason—and cleaning those issues up has to be priority No. 1 for the Badger D.
Despite the loss of Henry and its top cornerback, the Wisconsin secondary won't slip this year. The question is if it will step up, especially in its big games.
Big Ten Position Ranking: Seventh
Under Bret Bielema, the Wisconsin defense has been consistent.
It has never been great—arguably 2006 aside—but it has also never been lousy.
This season, despite only five returning starters, the defense should be better than last year's severely overrated group.
The pass rush will improve with the return of Gilbert, the linebackers are amongst the best in the country and the secondary should hold serve at the least and improve palpably at best.
Nonetheless, given Bielema's track record, it is unrealistic to think this will be one of the top three defenses in the conference. It is also unrealistic to think it will be worse than the top half of the Big Ten.
In 2012, the Badgers will have the fourth or fifth best defense in the conference, but the big question concerns big plays, and if the defense will show up in big games.
Coming next Monday, an overview and breakdown of Wisconsin's specialists, schedule, recruiting class and a prediction as to where I think the Badgers will finish the 2012 season.
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