MADISON—As high a standard as Wisconsin has set in recent seasons on defense, the unit failed at critical points during Saturday’s performance in a 24-21 loss to BYU at home.
On the stat sheet, Wisconsin gave up 311 yards to the Cougars, just six yards over the amount its defense allowed in the season opening win against Western Kentucky two weeks ago. Quarterback Tanner Magnum—who only passed for 89 yards—and his offense only moved the chain on third downs three times out of nine attempts.
However, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit gave up 191 yards on the ground with the BYU rushing attack gaining 10 or more yards six times in “chunk plays.” That included two 40-plus yard runs from running back Squally Canada.
Redshirt senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards pointed to several key areas after what seems like an uncharacteristic outing.
“We just didn’t execute,” Edwards said, “I think gameplan wise we were there. We just missed tackles, out of gaps. When you do that, you won’t win.”
BYU which including a lot motion on the field on Saturday afternoon, and it helped lead to some big runs both on jet sweeps and also between the tackles with Canada’s big runs.
On a 2nd-and-7 in the first quarter, Canada took a handoff from Magnum off a fake sweep motion. With the hole the offensive line opened up, the back eluded a couple of Wisconsin tacklers and sprinted 44 yards into Wisconsin territory. That led to BYU’s first touchdown on Canada’s three-yard run.
On both of Canada’s touchdown runs on the afternoon, along with the 46-yard carry on BYU’s eventual game-winning field goal drive, more motion was utilized.
When asked about those big 40-plus yard gains by Canada, who came into the game averaging only 3.7 yards per carry but averaging 10.7 per attempt on Saturday, inside linebacker Ryan Connelly fixated on the responsibilities the players have.
“Just how easily if you’re out of your gap, how easily it can go for the big run,” Connelly said, who led the team in tackles (8). “Like I said, the jet sweep, it gives a lot of eye candy, and so if you’re not spot on with your responsibility, it can be that quickly that can gash. So it’s something that we got to fix.”
Wide receivers Aleva Hifo, Dylan Collie and Riley Burt all recorded runs of at least 12 yards off of some some version of motion-based sweeps.
Edwards credited BYU for executing their offense with the motion, and “as linebackers, they do a good job of moving your eyes.”
“I just think today, I mean personally, I tried to see too much and wasn’t focused on what I had to do with my assignment and it’s where things got lost a little bit. They executed very well and they played a good game.”
Connelly and Edwards both separately mentioned that they mostly expected what they saw on the field out of the Cougars on Saturday. One play that safety D’Cota Dixon referenced postgame that was not necessarily expected or on film, however, was the trick play BYU perfectly executed in the second quarter. Magnum laterally a pass to Hifo to the far right side of the field near the sideline. The wide receiver then found tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau completely wide open for a 31-yard touchdown to put the visitors up 14-7.
That was one of three chunk plays of 15 or more yards allowed through the air. Dixon, however, said there is no excuse and took blame for the big play through the air.
“You just play the rules, you play your keys,” Dixon said, who tallied four tackles. “I had us in the wrong call on our side of the ball. That was on me. That’s totally on me, so I’ll have to be better and I will be better.”
The key with that call was not just the communication but executing on his end.
“When everybody is on one side of the ball, there’s an adjustment we have to go from there but there’s a lot of shifting a lot of motion,” Dixon said. “I think I was too busy focusing on trying to make sure guys got my call rather than focusing on what I saw in front of me, so that’s on me. Still got to play, you still got to play football. You still got to line up and tend to your responsibilities, and I was short on that play.”
Wisconsin did make improvements from the first half, where it gave up 222 yards (134 rushing, 88 receiving) and 2-of-4 third down conversions. In the final 30 minutes, the Badgers defense clamped down in only allowing 89 yards—though 46 of those came on Canada’s run in the fourth quarter on that game-deciding series.
Dixon attributed that change to making some adjustments.
“We simplified the defense, simplified the calls we were making,” Dixon said, “and it was just easier to see everything once they shifted or motioned, whatever they were doing. It was a lot easier to communicate and move on the adjustments.”
Saturday’s results demonstrate an uncharacteristic performance from a typically sound Wisconsin defense, though the team lost redshirt senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel for most of the game with a right leg injury. The unit still is also relatively young and unproven with seven new starters just three games into the season.
The team now looks ahead to the next chapter—a conference-opener on the road against Iowa in a rivalry game that will have significant divisional ramifications to it.
When asked when the players turn the page, Edwards, the senior ‘backer and one of the four team captains, noted a very short timeframe.
“I think you try to tonight. You try to tomorrow morning,” Edwards said. “We’re going to look at the film tomorrow morning, and then we’re going to start game planning tomorrow as well, so it has to come from those leaders, guys to really get us out of this slump and to make sure guys don’t get in that.
“It’s going to be a fun next couple of days to see how guys respond.”
Dixon acknowledged what happened on Saturday “will definitely be fuel for us going into next week.”
“It teaches you a lot about yourself as a unit, as a team, as an identity, so we’ll get better from it. We’ll get it corrected on film and we’ll more forward in confidence. I’m confident in these guys, I’m confident on the offensive side, I’m confident in the whole team, so we’ll be fine.”