In the first week of spring camp, Bret Bielema spoke candidly about his team's inability to defend against big plays in the run game in 2011, identifying it as an area he and Wisconsin's defensive coaches wanted to emphasize this spring.
It's still early, but based on the results of Saturday's intra-squad spring game, Wisconsin is making progress. Even with all three of its projected starting linebackers -- Ethan Armstrong, Chris Borland and Mike Taylor -- sidelined with minor injuries, Wisconsin's No. 1 defense held Jeff Lewis, the running back for its No. 2 offense, to just 18 yards on 12 attempts in the Cardinal's 21-10 win over the White squad.
One reason for Wisconsin's success was the play of its front four. Defensive end Brendan Kelly, who seemed to be in the backfield nearly every snap he took Saturday, told me after the game containing the run all starts up front.
"Vertical penetration is what stops the run. If you can set the edge with a three-technique (defensive tackle), it allows your d-end to fold and make plays underneath. TFLs (tackles for loss) all day. That's huge," Kelly said.
What Kelly is referring to is something that's easier to understand by seeing it in a game than it is to read about on a screen, but basically, when defensive tackles push offensive linemen back and penetrate into the backfield, it makes everyone else's job easier.
It's also something Wisconsin's experienced group of interior defensive linemen has shown the ability to do this spring. Kelly has certainly taken notice.
"Our defensive tackles really took a step up. Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer and Jordan Kohout when he was healthy, really just resetting the line of scrimmage. That comes with taking the right footwork, knowing your assignment and taking a stance and just striking as hard as you can," Kelly said.
Allen, a 6-foot-3, 323 pound junior who has never missed a game in his Wisconsin career, was arguably the most impressive of the bunch Saturday. He was credited for three tackles for loss and a sack.
Allen said the Wisconsin defensive line's newfound ability to penetrate and stop the run Saturday says more about its experience playing together as a unit than it did about any one player.
"That was definitely a big focus for us this spring. We know that was a big weakness of ours and I think we kind of attacked that," Allen said. "I think we've come a long way. Everyone that was out there today -- me and Hemer, the d-tackles, and Pat Muldoon and Branden Kelly, the defensive ends -- we've all been playing together since last spring, all together last season, and we've all just gotten a lot of reps together. I think that can go a long way for continuity."
In addition to bottling up Lewis, the No. 1 defense allowed quarterback Joe Brennan to complete just two of his 11 passes for 24 yards and did not concede a scoring drive (all of the White team's points came from the two rapid-fire kicking competitions between quarters). Even though the season is still several months away, Kelly expects big things in 2012.
"This year we have a lot more confidence and swagger on defense. You're going to see that this fall," Kelly said. "We've got great camaraderie on the defensive line and front seven."