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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern: Badgers defense shredded on the ground

Though Wisconsin held Northwestern to a subpar performance through the air, the Wildcats attacked -- and won -- the battle in the trenches.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers went into Ryan Field Saturday afternoon with the hopes of starting Big Ten play on the right foot against the Northwestern Wildcats. Obviously, there were some concerns on the offensive side of the ball for Wisconsin in its passing game, but many thought the defense would continue its mostly solid showings against an offense with really a stunted running game and an on-again, off-again quarterback in Trevor Siemian.

Though Wisconsin's offense sputtered, it was also the defense that uncharacteristically allowed almost 5 yards per carry and 385 total yards to Northwestern in a 20-14 loss.

By the numbers

8th: FBS rank for Wisconsin in total defense after Saturday's game (285.6 yards per game)

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

203: Rushing yards gained by Northwestern

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

20: Number of points given up by Wisconsin

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

182: Total passing yards vs. Northwestern

0: Number of turnovers forced by Wisconsin

2: Number of red-zone touchdowns by Northwestern, the first ones allowed by Wisconsin all year

3: Number of sacks by Wisconsin

4: Number of tackles for loss (TFLs) by Wisconsin


Northwestern spread out Wisconsin's defense, normally in an 11 personnel grouping. Wisconsin countered for the majority of the game with a nickel package mostly with two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs (mostly three cornerbacks, two safeties). In those looks, sometimes you saw sophomore linebacker Vince Biegel have a hand in the ground.

Also, a couple of times you saw one of my favorite defensive looks -- the one-lineman, multiple-linebackers subpackage that seems to bring havoc and dismay vs. many teams.

At times, you saw a 12 personnel or tight bunch look from the Wildcats. The Badgers went to a more base 3-4 scheme.

What went right?

1. Michael Caputo. Leading the team (again) in tackles, this time with 11, Caputo is a hard-nosed safety that has consistently saved the Badgers' defense from even more big plays by opposing offenses. Eight of his 11 tackles were solo.

2. Passing defense. Give the secondary some credit. It held the Wildcats to 182 yards through the air, 50 less than their average coming into the game. Only one pass was completed over 30 yards, and Siemian was just over 50 percent (15-of-29) in completions.

3. Third-down defense. The Badgers held the Wildcats to 5-of-16 on third downs, including 1-of-6 in the second half. That places defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's defense eighth in the nation overall in opponent third-down conversion at 27.5 percent.

What went wrong?

1. Run defense. Personally, I thought the real troubles would come through the air, where the Wildcats were throwing for about 235 yards per contest. The Badgers only allowed 182 yards in that category.

Wisconsin came into the game only allowing 86 yards a game against the run. Northwestern ran for 203 in the game, owning the line of scrimmage and taking advantage of the injury to Marcus Trotter, while spreading Wisconsin out in a nickel look with only two down linemen. Running back Justin Jackson ran for 162 yards on 33 carries. There weren't many breakout runs for Northwestern, as their longest run was for 18 yards. However, they made them count, such as the 16-yard touchodown by Miles Shuler for a 17-7 lead in the third quarter.

Andersen noted how the gains in yardage affected a key part of the offensive equation; namely, the fact that five of Wisconsin's 12 drives started from at or inside its own 10-yard line:

Then the last thing on the defensive side, from the Northwestern game, our defense was just OK in that game. If we sit back and look at it again from a team aspect, and we all look at ourselves and I look at myself first in all these situations, the fact of the matter is we allowed the Northwestern to run the ball effectively on us, and they did run the ball effectively on us, which, in turn, flipped field position. There were four starting drives that were very difficult for the offense, and the defense had a lot to do with that, the starting point.

2. Zero turnovers when there were chances. On the first drive of the game, the Badgers missed a gift of an interception that cornerback Devin Gaulden failed to reel in, which would have allowed Wisconsin great field position and an instant momentum-changer early in the game. Sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton also missed an interception with Northwestern threatening in the red zone, albeit one with larger degree of difficulty.

Regardless, this game -- besides the much-publicized offensive meltdown even with Melvin Gordon dropping 259 yards on the ground -- revolved around the turnover battle. Northwestern turned two of the four turnovers into 10 points. Wisconsin didn't force any takeovers, and as it's relied on some big ones to swing momentum, the pendulum didn't swing its way on Saturday.

3. Missed tackles.

Though the conditions were slick, there were numerous times the Badgers could've stopped the Wildcats before plays were extended. Did the loss of Trotter, who before the game was second on the team in tackles behind Caputo, hurt? Probably.

4. Red-zone offense. Northwestern converted two of its four red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Along with two field goals, the Wildcats were 4-of-4 in scoring opportunities on the day.

5. First-half offensive plays for Northwestern. Forty-six. That's the total number of offensive plays in the first half. Though in a completely different offensive scheme, South Florida ran only 38 for the entire game last week. Give credit to Northwestern for keeping Wisconsin's defense on the field so much, but also give credit to the Badgers' defense for only holding Northwestern to 10 points in those first two quarters -- because it certainly felt like they were up by 28.

Words of encouragement