Wisconsin defense review: Badgers dominate Minutemen

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The 45-0 final score obviously paints a full feature, but there are aspects of the defense's debut that are worth delving into.

Saturday afternoon, everyone wanted to see Wisconsin's new 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Did the Badgers force turnovers? Did Chris Borland take flight like Superman? Looking back at the game, my answers are:  yes, yes and maybe, since at times he moves faster than a speeding bullet.

Numbers to notice

8: Number of penalties committed by UMass' offense (seven accepted between five false starts, one delay of game and one holding)

3.6: UMass' average yards per play

3: Number of three-and-outs by Wisconsin's defense

2: Number of penalties committed by Wisconsin's defense on third down that resulted in a UMass first down

2: Turnovers forced by Wisconsin (my 2013 prediction: 25)

2: Quarterback hits by Wisconsin (by cornerback Sojourn Shelton and linebacker Conor O'Neill)

0: Sacks by Wisconsin (Nose guard Warren Herring had a sack in the third quarter wiped out by defensive holding)

0: Number of times UMass entered Wisconsin's red zone

What went right

One can argue the whole afternoon went very well. Not perfect, but very, very well. For starters, no points were allowed, and the farthest the Minutemen drove into Badgers territory was the 29-yard line. The closest UMass came to scoring was the missed 46-yard field goal in the second quarter, which at first was good before UMass head coach Charlie Molnar decided to ice his own kicker.

Pitching a shutout, no matter how great or how terrible a team may be, is impressive in the FBS college ranks, especially when your starters spend much of the game's latter periods on the sideline.

Equally impressive and an example of Wisconsin's "aggressive" tendencies were the seven forced penalties, six of them before the snap. As Borland pointed out, UMass, who gained just 212 total yards in offense, was not comfortable and confident in what the Badgers were throwing at them. To be honest, after looking at the game again, they had good right to be confused.

Wisconsin employed three basic formations for the majority of the game against UMass' spread:

  • A 3-4 base defense with three down linemen, better known as an odd front
  • An even front with 3-4 personnel as senior Brendan Kelly, the boundary side linebacker, serving as the fourth lineman
  • A nickel formation featuring two defensive linemen

Sans two plays, these three sets were primarily used, so what made them so confusing? Multiple defensive shifts and not knowing who or where the fourth defender was coming from. Out of the five false start penalties committed, two occurred while Wisconsin was in the nickel, two jumped in the even front later in the game and one in the odd front with the base 3-4.

The one delay-of game penalty came when Aranda employed a unique dime formation with only one defensive lineman and no one with a hand in the ground. Multiple shifts between hovering Badgers confused sophomore quarterback Mike Wegzyn and his offensive line to the point of the play clock running out.

In a 3-4 defense, at least three players -- the linemen, mostly -- will rush the quarterback, but like BTN analyst Gerry DiNardo stated Saturday, you don't know where that fourth rusher (normally a linebacker) will come from. It wasn't just a linebacker attacking Wegzyn, though, and it wasn't just out of the base odd front the Badgers employed. All of the linebackers rushed at one time or another, including sophomore linebacker Joe Schobert teaming with Kelly in that nickel formation as well as Borland and O'Neill blitzing effectively in the nickel and even fronts, but you saw the secondary (particularly Shelton, Michael Trotter and Michael Caputo) get involved. Although they did not officially register a sack against UMass, the confusion created by the formations and the different combinations of rushers led to pressure on Wegzyn, two turnovers and a multitude of penalties.

Borland noted the team was aggressive but did not show a lot. What else does the mad scientist in Aranda have up his sleeve? I'm sure we'll all find out as early as Week 3 against Arizona State.

What went wrong

To be honest, not much. One can be nit-picky and say two defensive penalties committed on third down, allowing UMass to extend two drives, but those did not come back to haunt them. UMass was also 6-of-14 in third-down efficiency, just under 50 percent, but Wisconsin's defense only allowed them to move the chains six times in 60 minutes.

Final thoughts

Wisconsin aggressively confused UMass into submission. Their use of the formations and not showing their full hand will be key for bigger match-ups coming later in the season. You won't tell where Wisconsin's improvements really need to be made until Arizona State in less than two weeks, so for now, enjoy the controlled chaos Aranda calls with each play next week vs. Tennessee Tech.

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