Wisconsin's 3-4 defense showing what it can do, but not everything

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Members of the Badgers' front seven believe their new defensive scheme already paid dividends against UMass. They also know they have plenty more wrinkles still to unveil as the year progresses.

MADISON -- Wisconsin fans caught a glimpse Saturday of how much freedom the new 3-4 defense can allow.

While UMass's heavy preference to the three-step drop passing attack kept it from showing on the stat sheet, the Badgers didn't have trouble affecting the quarterback in the season opener, as the Mintuemen had trouble recognizing which red jerseys planned on rushing full-force into the backfield on any given play.

As impressive as the shutout performance was, though, the Badgers plan on making things even more complicated once the offenses become more potent.

"If you've talked to (defensive coordinator Dave) Aranda, you know that he's got blitzes under his pillowcase," outside linebacker Brendan Kelly said. "He's got every blitz you could think of. Our playbook is just as big as the offensive playbook -- let's just say that."

That's what Aranda loves about playing the 3-4, and what he believes will give Wisconsin the flexibility to dictate how offenses play, rather than the other way around.

"I don't know if we'll ever run some of the blitzes. Some of the things are like, 'Are we really going to call this?'" -Brendan Kelly

So far, so good after giving up just 3.4 yards per rush Saturday while also keeping UMass from completing 50 percent of its passes. Much of that has to do with the front seven effectively extending their hands in order to "two-gap," something Aranda has emphasized from the beginning. If the defense can do that, he said, then playing an extra linebacker to disguise blitz packages won't be a problem.

"All that is if you've got the right people to do it, which is the most important thing, and I feel that we do," Aranda said. "I think the guys like the flexibility that the defense gives. I think they like the aggressiveness part of it, and they like the fact that you get to blitz and still just be rushing four guys."

Aranda's personnel took a hit when starting inside linebacker Derek Landisch injured his right foot/ankle. The defensive coordinator expects it will keep him out two weeks or possibly even longer, and Conor O'Neill is expected to start in his place Saturday against Tennessee Tech.

The difficulty of execution will also obviously increase once the Badgers play Arizona State in Week 3 and get into Big Ten play, and Kelly noted that communication errors still existed during the 45-0 rout in Week 1.

That doesn't mean this week's game against Tennessee Tech -- which scored 63 points in its own season opener last week -- can't be a challenge, though. Aranda said the type of spread offense the Golden Eagles run looks much different from what UMass threw at the Badgers, and that quarterback Darian Stone is a real playmaker that can extend plays.

No one expects Tennessee Tech to be able to compete with the 21st-ranked Badgers, but the Golden Eagles' offense could provide an important experience for Wisconsin's front seven before playing spread offenses during Big Ten play.

"In this league now, there are more spread teams," inside linebacker Chris Borland said. "You're going to see a lot of different looks, and in a 4-3, you've really pigeonholed yourself to certain personnel groupings and certain defenses. In a 3-4, you've got one more athlete on the field, really, so it allows you to be more versatile. You can show more looks from more places. You can adjust better."

There seems to be a consensus amongst Wisconsin's front seven that the defensive scheme change was for the better, and last week's season opener only confirmed that.

Kelly, who switched from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker this season, enjoys being able to show off his athleticism in pass coverage, even if it means he's not always one of the ones rushing the quarterback anymore. He also said he could already see the effects of the new defense against UMass.

"It's fun seeing how the offense just evolves the whole game, where they can't really tell who's coming," he said. "They don't know who the fourth rusher is; they don't know who the fifth rusher is. Playing games with the offense is something I really enjoy doing pre-snap. You see some plays in the (UMass) game where we started doing that, and they were just so confused that they got a penalty or a play clock ran out.

"Things like that you just love. They're small plays, but they're wins for the defense, and when you start doing stuff like that, you really start to understand that the 3-4 defense, you can do so many things with it."

And that was a game in which Wisconsin admittedly kept the defensive game plan rather simple. The Badgers have plenty in the tank that they didn't show Saturday.

"I don't know if we'll ever run some of the blitzes," Kelly said. "Some of the things are like, ‘Are we really going to call this?' (Aranda's) the type of coach that at any point in time he can pull it out and you've got to be ready for it, so it's always kind of a mind game."

Senior nose tackle Beau Allen added, "We kept it pretty vanilla on Saturday. Going forward, I'm sure you guys will see a lot more creative stuff."

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