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Wisconsin's defense holding firm despite giving up some big plays

The Badgers have developed a tendency for allowing big plays before rescuing themselves with key takeaways. Will that be enough in Big Ten play?

Grey Satterfield

On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Madison, the Wisconsin Badgers defeated the South Florida Bulls 27-10. Though it took UW's offense until the second half to ignite with four consecutive scoring drives, the defense held the Bulls to 245 total yards of offense and just 38 total plays. This, while also forcing key turnovers in its second consecutive game after giving up some large chunks of yardage.

Numbers to know

9th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's rushing defense (86.3 yards per game)

105th: FBS rank for Northwestern's rushing offense (112.3)

11th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's scoring defense (14.5 points per game, first in Big Ten)

18th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's passing defense (174.5)

66th: FBS rank for Northwestern's passing offense (235.8)

T-42nd: FBS rank for Wisconsin in tackles for loss (TFLs) (6.5 per game)

T-55th: Turnovers forced by Wisconsin (7)

10th: FBS rank for Wisconsin's third-down defense (opponents convert 26.4 percent)

0: Number of touchdowns Wisconsin's defense has allowed in the red zone

38: Number of plays run by South Florida in Saturday's game

13: Number of plays run by South Florida in second half

2: Turnovers forced by true freshman safety Lubern Figaro this season (1 interception, 1 forced fumble)

4: Number of forced fumbles by Wisconsin's defense this season

20, 6, 3: Number of tackles, TFLs and sacks by senior linebacker Derek Landisch for the season (latter two leading the team)

Personnel

South Florida gave some looks to Wisconsin's defense that almost mirrored what the Badgers' own offense runs during practice, at least in terms of personnel. The Bulls, for the majority of the game, ran out of either 21, 22 or 12 personnel. To counter that, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda primarily used a base 3-4 scheme, though some variations were seen.

When the Bulls went to a 22 look, the Badgers brought in a third safety, redshirt freshman Joe Ferguson, to replace one of the cornerbacks. In fact, Ferguson technically earned the first start of his career on Saturday, as South Florida started the game in a 22 package.

Aranda utilized a nickel look sparingly when the Bulls gave a three-wide receiver package, normally showcasing two down linemen with four linebackers. He also had a couple of different wrinkles in the nickel as well -- based on charting, it seemed like a 3-3-5 look for one play, plus that crazy "one-linemen, plenty 'o' backers standing up" look.

What went right?

1. Key turnovers at opportune times. With Wisconsin up 20-10 in the early part of the fourth quarter, South Florida quarterback Mike White hit fullback Kennar Swanson for a 52-yard completion (WHEEL ROUTE!), beating linebacker Vince Biegel in coverage. Figaro took a great angle chasing down Swanson and laid out a hit that put the ball on the ground, with Biegel recovering the fumble. That was the game's ultimate turning point, as Wisconsin went 18 plays, 74 yards on the next drive to seal the game with a touchdown. It was the second key turnover in as many games for Figaro, whose interception in the red zone against Bowling Green halted a potential scoring drive.

2. Derek Landisch. In Saturday's B5Q roundtable, Mike Fiammetta stated, "Landisch had a Chris Borland game today, if I'm allowed to say that for anyone not named Chris Borland." The effects of Landisch's hamstring injury suffered during fall camp have not been apparent recently. He tied for the team lead in tackles Saturday with five, and also had the team's only sack and two TFLs -- along with an interception that halted a Bulls drive in the second quarter. Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen later had some high praise for his senior "rover" inside linebacker:

Yeah, he is a tremendous leader. In fact I talked to Derek just before I walked in here, and it's gaining momentum, too. He becomes stronger and stronger. His presence is felt on the field, his presence is felt in the locker room more every single day and every single week, and you can see it on Tuesday just as well as you can see it on Saturday. He's a huge part of that defense, and there's some of those kids that are out there playing right now that need to continually learn how to prepare consistently, and they should follow Derek Landisch

3. Third-down conversions. The Bulls were 2-of-9 on Saturday afternoon. Of South Florida's 10 drives, four were three-and-outs. Wisconsin's defense has been successful in this category, as outside of one quarter vs. LSU (when the Tigers were 4-of-5 in the fourth quarter), the Badgers have stymied opponents in this category. Even considering that dreaded fourth quarter, the Badgers are 10th in the nation in opponent third=down percentage.

4. Long offensive drives in the second half. The offense dominated in the second half, running 43 plays and owning the time of possession 23:49 to 6:11. The defense kept fresh, and should be ready to go against Northwestern.

What went wrong?

Big plays. Wisconsin surrendered 245 yards, but five of South Florida's 38 plays counted for 161 (22, 26, 35, 26 and 52 yards). Two consecutive big plays in the third quarter culminated in Rodney Adams scoring from 26 yards out on an end-around that caught the Badgers napping, and if not for Figaro's forced fumble, Swanson's 52-yard catch off the wheel route would've put the Bulls in scoring position again down 20-10.

We've seen big plays allowed in three of Wisconsin's four non-conference games, from Travin Dural's 80-yard touchdown reception for LSU to last week's two big runs given up against Bowling Green. Andersen, when asked if he's OK with the Badgers giving up clusters of big plays before forcing takeaways, had this to say:

No, not really. I'm okay if a kid makes a big play. The big tight end, No. 80, catches the ball, we're in man coverage, he makes a great play, and in my mind that's a big play. Do I like it, no, but hey, that's football. The wheel route down their sideline there when it's a 10-point football game, that's inexcusable for all of us, and it all starts with me. The big plays do have me a little bit concerned. It was nice to see us making a play on the deep ball; that play that Sojourn (Shelton) made on the deep ball today was very encouraging to get that ball out.

Defense is defense, but 10 points is 10 points, which is fantastic. They played very, very well. But we do not want to be known as a defense that gives us big plays.