One of the benefits of being an undergrad at Wisconsin for five years is the ability to gain a bit of perspective when it comes to athletics. Tune that in with being a lifelong Badger fan and you feel a false over-confidence that you have a bit of authority when it comes to diagnosing talent.
So let’s get it out of the way right now, OK? There is no J.J.-Watt caliber pass rusher on the Wisconsin roster. But a lot of folks forget that Watt wasn’t the All-Pro caliber end he is in the NFL during his junior year at Wisconsin. If he would have stayed his senior year (a year with Russell Wilson at quarterback, sigh) Watt would have most likely put up ungodly numbers. He didn’t even record double-digit sacks in his final season with the Badgers (seven in 2010).
Remember who the last UW player was to accomplish such a feat? If you answered O’Brien Schofield with 12 in 2009, you win! Granted, it’s not every season you have a player who is a dominant, NFL-worthy pass rusher, but it’s still something the Badgers have sorely lacked over the past two years.
Getting to this double-digit total has proved elusive throughout Wisconsin program history. It’s only been accomplished eight times, with Tom Burke accomplishing it prior to Schofield when he recorded a program-record 22 sacks in the team’s 1998 Rose Bowl season.
With the defense moving to the 3-4 in 2013, it’ll be interesting to see if the flexibility of the scheme will allow for more creativity in the way Wisconsin attacks the quarterback on passing downs. The front seven will be deep, with linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong (hopefully nicely after an offseason surgery) returning and a defensive line that didn’t lose a single starter to graduation. Redshirt freshman and highly touted in-state recruit Vince Biegel looked like a madman in the spring game off the edge, and with his speed and athleticism he could be a big piece in the near-future.
Think about the past two years since Watt graduated. There hasn’t been that player who steps up when it matters most, who trips up an athletic quarterback in crunch time like Watt did against Terrelle Pryor twice in Wisconsin's 2010 upset over No. 1 Ohio State at Camp Randall. In the waning moments of games at Ohio State and Michigan State in 2011, there was no pass rush during crunch time to stop the deciding pass plays from happening (and there really wasn’t one all game, for that matter). In 2012? There was some in spurts, but there was no closer.
Watching film on the Big Ten Championship Game, that lack of a closer on the pass rush shows. Remember Taylor Martinez’s insane scramble on what looked to be a broken play? Third-and-11, Wisconsin’s up 14-0 and Nebraska is already in desperation mode with its back to the wall. The Badgers come out in their "Indy" scheme, with two defensive ends down in their stances on the edges and, inside, four standing pass rushers.
First, Brendan Kelly (No. 97) comes in unblocked with a clean release on the rush but over-pursues the athletic Martinez, as the quarterback spins away from the defensive end and back to his left. Then, Tyler Dippel (No. 51) finds himself with a shot at Martinez but takes the wrong angle, committing on too far of an inside angle, allowing the Huskers’ quarterback to simply run around the Badgers’ defensive end toward the sideline.
Then Martinez simply jukes out defensive end David Gilbert (No. 11), who, like Dippel, commits himself too far to the inside and allows Martinez an outside lane. Oh, but don’t worry, Kelly is still chasing Martinez from behind. Most likely with the image of the previous spin fresh in his head, Kelly chases Martinez to where he is rather than where he will be. The juked-out Gilbert momentarily disrupts Kelly’s pursuit and that’s all Martinez needs.
Both Mike Taylor (No. 53) and Pat Muldoon (No. 92) finally force Martinez inside, but it doesn’t matter because they are the help, not the initial pursuers. They also break down way too late, giving them zero chance to react to Martinez’s cut inside. Then, it’s off to the races. Was it a stupid play call? Maybe. Was it terrible execution? Yes. Was it a hell of a play by Martinez? Absolutely. But, it highlights the lack of the guy at Wisconsin. And that role has been unfulfilled since Watt’s departure to the NFL.
Wisconsin won’t have to face Martinez and Nebraska in the regular season, but it will have to face an even more balanced dual-threat quarterback in Ohio State’s Heisman-hopeful Braxton Miller at the Horseshoe. And with that game not only Wisconsin’s toughest test in 2013 but also most likely the decider of the Leaders Division, the Badgers will need a dynamic pass rush to not only contain Miller, but to rattle him as well.