Wisconsin's defense has been a top-five squad in terms of total defense since the arrival of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, but the Badgers ran into a very talented Alabama offense on Saturday led by junior running back Derrick Henry in a 35-17 loss at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Following the loss of redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo, a captain and pronounced leader of the Badgers' defense, Wisconsin gave up 502 yards -- including 274 on the ground.
The Badgers mostly applied a base 3-4 scheme, along with 2-4-5 "peso" nickel package of two defensive linemen as pseudo-defensive tackles, four linebackers and five defensive backs in certain situations to counter Alabama's 11 personnel and other looks the Tide used to throw off Wisconsin.
To help us break down the effort and what went right/wrong for the Badgers, I asked the help of B5Q friend and colleague, SpaceCoyoteBDS -- as he is far smarter than I. You can also read his breakdown of the game seen here.
Before diving into what went wrong for Wisconsin, who and what were some of the positives for the Badgers on defense?
I think there are two things Wisconsin fans can feel good about on defense; I'm not sure if you want to take that as glass two-elevenths full or what, but I thought two players played really strongly.
Joe Schobert had a really strong game. He flashed some big plays that were obvious, such as a nice inside rip move on a pass rush and a couple nice plays in the run game, but for the most part he also did the little things well. He set the edge and didn't give up ground, crashed off the backside edge, he generally made plays or allowed others to make plays. Maybe most importantly, he consistently did his assignment.
The other guy I thought played a really good game was Sojourn Shelton. I think Shelton got attacked about four times in the first half and gave up negative yardage. He showed great make up speed on a deep post, played tight in single coverage on another post, and shut down two screen plays. He tackled well in space and didn't let the ball get outside of him. After that, Alabama generally stopped going after him in favor of other things.
It appeared Alabama ran a lot of 11 personnel out of pistol and shotgun personnel, though they used some other looks as well. How did the Tide attack the Badgers from what you saw, and how did Wisconsin respond?
To me it seemed that Bama's initial game plan was heavily influenced by the OSU game plan from last year's Big Ten Title Game; that is, a strong inside running attack to force isolated match-ups on the outside. The first part, the Tide executed to a tee; they mixed Inside Zone with Power O, got combo blocks to the second level, and consistently got vertical displacement along the line of scrimmage (LOS).
Alabama clearly thought they could take advantage of the Badgers defensive line, and they did. For the most part, Bama attacked right at Leon Jacobs. They trusted that Edwards would struggle making quick enough decisions and that Jacobs would struggle getting off quick blocks, and they were right.
As the defensive line really struggled, so did the inside linebackers for Wisconsin. Jacobs was getting a blocker in his face quicker than he could react, and Edwards seemed to be stuck in cement trying to diagnose plays. Aranda's response was the correct one: have Edwards try to run blitz A gaps. In theory, his momentum before the snap would be able to blow up the offensive line. The offensive line having to abort the double teams, would get less movement up front and would have to stand up to the momentum of a blitzing LB. The idea here is that a wall is formed along the LOS, the backside or front side is pushed back in the A gap, and the play is forced to go in one direction, where the defense has formed a wall and can bottle up the run game. But the DL still broke down, even to single team blocks. They got pushed off the ball and the OL was able to wash Edwards down on one side and get out to Jacobs immediately. Missed tackles, poor gap integrity, and not getting off blocks, and Bama was able to do what they wanted with the inside run game.
That lead to the Tide's first offensive adjustment: pick on the inside linebackers in the pass game. Rather than attacking the outside, Bama noted that the Badgers safeties were playing extremely deep, and the ILBs were forced to over commit to the rushing attack. That left a huge vacated area behind the 2nd level of the defense and in front of the safeties, and Bama attacked that regularly with play action and drop back passes.
How did Jake Coker and Alabama's passing game pick apart the Badgers' defense at times?
I touched on it a bit, but it was mostly with intermediate routes. Alabama tried to hit a few shots deep but were defended pretty well. They all tried to hit with some screens, which are great blitz beaters. But with Bama's run game success, Wisconsin didn't get a chance to dial up much of their exotic blitz package, and so the screen game wasn't as strong. Likewise, guys like Shelton played well on the edge and allowed the Cover 4 safeties and OLBs to flow to the ball and lock down those plays. But as soon as the screen threat passed, there was a huge gap in the defense, behind that second level. Wisconsin wanted Bama to have to string together long, consistent drives, but the first line was so poor that the Tide could break off plays in chunks in both the run and pass. And that vertical run/pass conflict on the ILBs and the general struggles of Wisconsin's OLB to cover in space (not their strong suit) allowed Alabama to consistently execute in the pass game.
On the three long touchdown runs by Alabama, what mistakes did the Badgers make? There were quite a few.
SC: It all started up front with the defensive line. Sheehy got blown up and missed a tackle on one; Goldberg got driven two gaps over going against a down block. This was a consistent theme of the night, guys getting blown out of their gaps, and often pushed back all the way to the second level. When a running back doesn't meet defense until three yards down field, it's going to be a bad night for the defense. When a defender gets pushed three yards outside his gap, it's going to be a long night.
This issue was combated by the fact that the line didn't handle double teams; they didn't really handle single teams well, but the combo blocks were able to get out on the linebackers quickly and easily.
That gets to the whole front seven, which failed to get off blocks. As a defensive linemen, if you don't maintain doubles, you need to at least get off blocks and be disruptive, because the linebackers now are forced to take on blocks. The Wisconsin defensive line wasn't disruptive for the majority of the plays, and specifically not on the long touchdown runs, but then the linebackers also didn't get off blocks either. Linebackers have to read plays quickly, react, and attack blockers. If they are passive, then the longer, strong offensive line can get locked in and get glued to the defenders. That's what happened up front.
Then there was a chance to at least keep the plays from breaking long, but the safeties essentially disappeared. Poor angles, lack of awareness, missed tackles? All the above most likely. It really was a poor performance in that regard.
Paul Chryst said on Monday that containment, gap assignments and missed tackles were among the mistakes seen on film. With your experience as a football coach, how correctable are those aspects of the game -- is it just learning from the game film?
I didn't see too many containment issues, though Biegel gave up the edge a handful of times; that seemed like a drop in the bucket compared to the bigger problems though (Biegel, for his part, made some great plays and some really bad plays; very inconsistent night for him).
Gap assignments can be fixed. The thing that will help the most is not facing Alabama again. But you look at last year's run defense, and they struggled a bit against four opponents: Northwestern, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Auburn. Northwestern killed with pin and pull, Wisconsin simply didn't look prepared for it, but it wasn't about maintaining gaps. The other three teams are teams that can run Inside Zone and Power really well, that can get displacement at the DL level. Wisconsin should be able to handle most of the teams on their schedule; only Minnesota has a strong inside rushing attack left on their schedule (Nebraska still struggles running inside zone, Iowa is an outside zone scheme, and Rutgers may improve to be a bit of a threat, but I'm not sure they'll be enough of one).
But against the better teams, it's going to come down to defensive line improvement. They have to stay low, they have to use their hands much better, they have to feel where blocks are coming from and have better awareness to meet those blocks. Those were things that looked better in the spring game than they did last year, so maybe they have improved a bit and just didn't show due to facing Bama, but they still have a ways to go.
As far as tackling, playing gap integrity football will help a lot there. When you get blown off the ball you don't have any strength to make tackles or you force someone else to make tackles in space. It's difficult to tackle when engaged in blocks, which Wisconsin had to try to do a lot of against the Tide. Better DL play or different teams will make the Badgers look like a better tackling team. To me, that is by far the biggest thing. Tackling itself is a technique, discipline, and mentality thing (likely in that order), but if you don't put yourself in a good position to make a play, those things are generally void. I think Wisconsin's issue in this one was getting in positions to allow themselves to make plays more than anything.