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Wisconsin vs. Minnesota: Badgers' defense, like most of 2015, up to task in win

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Another impressive performance by the Wisconsin defense has continued the trend of this memorable squad.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Another game, another dominant performance by the Wisconsin Badgers' defense in their 31-21 victory over the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday.

During this contest, however -- at TCF Stadium taking on an emotional Gophers squad with former head coach Jerry Kill running the team out on the field on Senior Day -- defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's squad would be complemented by an inconsistent and anemic Wisconsin running game. The defense didn't need to carry the team this game to keep UW close, as seen in many of the contests earlier this year (see: Iowa and Northwestern -- where ideally, Wisconsin's one goal line fumble and a certain official's interpretation of what a catch is from being 11-1), but they held Minnesota to 276 total yards on the afternoon, only 53 rushing.

Add another notch onto Wisconsin's belt of opponents they've stalled out offensively. It's become the expectation rather than the exception not just this season, ever since Aranda stepped foot into Madison back in December 2012.

Remember this defense from 2015, as it should go down as one of the best in UW history.

Their performance in the conference finale, against their greatest rival, was led by redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo and outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. The defense suffocated the Gophers on third down, allowing only 3-of-12 conversions in the game. Not including two drives that ended in three plays due to fumbles, and another two drives that ended in three plays as well due to interceptions, Minnesota went three-and-out five times.

They consistently harrassed redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner. Though the official statistics show only one sack, two tackles for loss, and zero quarterback hurries, pressure was brought from Schobert, Biegel, and fellow linebackers T.J. Edwards and T.J. Watt.

That helped contribute to five Gophers turnovers -- three through the air in the form of interceptions, along with two fumbles caused by Schobert and Caputo. Those takeaways gave shorter fields to the much-maligned Wisconsin offense, who converted three of those into 17 points on the crisp, Saturday afternoon on way to 257 yards rushing with its seventh offensive line combination in 12 contest.

Through these dozen games, the defense is amongst the best in the FBS. Consider these stats accumulated by Aranda's defense, according to the NCAA's official website through Sunday morning:

  • Leads nation in points allowed with 13.1 per contest
  • Third in total defense, allowing only 267.1 yards per game
  • Fifth in rush defense, giving up only 97.9 yards per game
  • Sixth in passing defense, allowing only 169.2 yards per game
  • 11th in third down percentage, allowing only 30.9 percent of conversions
This season, Aranda -- given the moniker of a "mad scientist" -- has found a knack of combining the veteran leadership of Caputo and his starting secondary (three seniors and a junior) and his outside linebackers with youthful but extremely talented players at inside linebacker and on the defensive line. Aranda gets the best out of his players, and like every good coach, plays to their strengths and puts them in the best position to win the down.

The defense has received contributions from those younger players. Schobert, Biegel and Caputo are second, third, and fourth on the team in tackles this season, respectively, but redshirt freshman in Edwards -- who converted to inside linebacker just this spring -- leads the team with 80. True freshman Chris Orr, substituting in for an injured Leon Jacobs, has stepped up huge when called upon and still ranks sixth on the team in that category despite missing three games due to a leg injury. In that position group alone, redshirt sophomore and former walk-on Jack Cichy has slid inside from his outside linebacker spot. He's fifth on the team in tackles with 51.

With that youth at inside linebacker, sophomore nose guard Conor Sheehy and true freshman Olive Sagapolu have contributed heavily to the Badgers defensive line alongside redshirt sophomores Chikwe Obasih and Alec James while redshirt junior Arthur Goldberg's battled injuries.

As in Cichy's situation, the defense has also utilized players converting to another position. Watt, who converted from tight end, has become a pass rushing specialist in subpackages and received more snaps of late. He tipped a pass that resulted in Schobert's first career interception on Saturday, and was frequently in the backfield after abusing the Minnesota offensive line. Sophomore cornerback Natrell Jamerson, who moved from wide receiver a season earlier, has found himself pressed into being the third or fourth cornerback this season depending upon sophomore Derrick Tindal's status.

Then there's Tanner McEvoy. The redshirt senior emerged to be a solid starting safety in his final collegiate season. The New Jersey native has intercepted six passes this season so far -- tied for fifth in the nation. Having a 6'6, atheltic safety essentially playing the basketball equivalent of a center in the middle of field has helped Wisconsin contain offenses in the passing game.

This isn't just a trend for this season. Since Aranda's arrival, the defense has been amongst the best nationally. Heading into the Minnesota game, Wisconsin's defense has done the following from 2013-2015:
  • Held opponents to 16.8 points per game, trailing only Alabama in that category for best in the nation
  • Given up the least amount of yards per game in the FBS, allowing only 289.8 yards per contest.
  • Allowed only 73 offensive touchdowns, with only Alabama (62) and Florida (69) for fewest given up in that time frame
Yes, the strength of schedule has not been the greatest, and Wisconsin did give up 502 yards and 35 points to Alabama in the season opener at AT&T Stadium, but the defensive performance seen this season should be given its proper due as amongst the best in school history. When the offense struggled through the season, especially against eventual Big Ten West division champion Iowa and what should be a Top-15 squad in Northwestern, the defense kept the game within one score, nearly willing the team to victory in spite of underwhelming offensive performances.

On points per game and playmakers alone, the 2015 Wisconsin defense should be on a pedestal alongside the 1998 Big Ten and Rose Bowl championship team -- which boasted defensive end Tom Burke, linebackers Bobby Adamov and Donnel Thompson, and cornerback Jamar Fletcher. That squad held teams to 10.2 points per contest, which also led the FBS that season.

Next season, the defensive line will return its starters, along with the inside linebackers, but the secondary and outside linebackers will see some turnover. Gone will be Caputo, McEvoy, Darius Hillary, and Schobert for sure, with Biegel weighing his options to declare early for the draft. Like Aranda and head coach Paul Chryst have done this year and will do next season, they'll insert the best players available at each position to give them the best chance to win. They'll need to, as the likes of LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State all are adversaries Wisconsin will hope to contain in some fashion next season.

But Aranda himself may be gone as well in 2016, if one of the many head coach openings suits him and is the right fit. After all, he deserves it after his accomplishments in Madison.

For that reason alone, remember this defense and the performances they put in week in and week out during the 2015 season.