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Wisconsin football: 2021 defense year in review

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Now that the season is over, let’s take a look back at what we learned in 2021!

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Nebraska at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers football team finished the season 9-4 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten. They won the Las Vegas Bowl and finished tied for second (I guess third because they lost to Minnesota but beat Purdue?) in the Big Ten West. Their highest AP ranking was No. 12, to start the season, and they may sneak into the bottom of the rankings after the final ones are released after the national title game, but probably won’t.

Let’s take a look at how the defense stacked up, both nationally and in the Big Ten:

Total yards allowed: 239.1 per game, No. 1 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Passing yards allowed: 174.3 per game, No. 5 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Rushing yards allowed: 64.8 per game, No. 1 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Points allowed: 16.1 per game, No. 4 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 16 Army at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yards per completion allowed: 11.74, No. 29 in the nation, No. 6 in the Big Ten
Passing efficiency allowed: 109.5, No. 4 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Yards per carry: 2.1 ypc, No. 1 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Tackles for loss: 6.9 per game (90 total), t-No. 21 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Sacks: 3.0 per game (39 total), t-No. 19 in the nation, No. 2 in the Big Ten
Third down conversion: 28.7%, No. 3 in the nation, No. 1 in the Big Ten
Turnovers forced: 24, t-No. 14 in the nation, No. 2 in the Big Ten

SP+ ranking (after championship week): 11.0 defense, No. 2 in the nation

It is pretty clear after looking at all of these numbers that this was one of the most dominant defenses in the country. Jim Leonhard’s unit was certainly the best in the Big Ten. We could quibble back and forth about whether UW’s defense was better than Georgia’s, but let’s save that for another time.

Let’s take a look at how each level, defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs, of the defense did in the 2021 season.

Defensive line

Matt Henningsen: 34 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, one pass defended
Keeanu Benton: 24 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, one pass defended, two fumble recoveries
Isaiah Mullens: 24 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, one pass defended

These three were the primary players that saw action on the defensive line, although Bryson Williams (seven tackles) and Rodas Johnson (eight tackles, one sack, one forced fumble) also saw some time. Benton was an absolute monster in the middle. He can hold up against the run and occupy blockers and he is also quick enough to get after the passer. It is great news that he is coming back for one more year and he should be a Day 2 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Keeanu Benton showed good pass rushing from his nose tackle position.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Henningsen, who will go down as another in a long line of walk-on success stories in Madison, will be difficult to replace. He always seemed to be around the ball and improved his pass rushing during his final season while also setting a new career-high in tackles.

The Badgers defensive line was an underrated unit nationally, but next year’s line will have big shoes to fill with the departure of Henningsen and Williams.

Linebackers

Leo Chenal: 96 total tackles, 8.0 sacks, two forced fumbles
Jack Sanborn: 77 total tackles, 5.0 sacks, one fumble recovery
Nick Herbig: 61 total tackles, 9.0 sacks, four passes defended, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery
Noah Burks: 42 total tackles, 4.0 sacks, two passes defended, one interception, one fumble recovery

Man, what is there to say about these linebackers that hasn’t already been said? They were excellent all season and one of the top position groups, offense or defense, in the whole nation. Chenal missed the first two games of the season and was still an All-American, Herbig made a strong case for being the best pass rusher in the Big Ten, Sanborn was all over the place all the time and Burks filled in all the gaps and made game-changing plays via turnovers.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’ll be fascinating to see how this unit performs next season, as only Herbig returns but they’ve been stockpiling talent on the recruiting trail. You don’t just immediately replace guys like Sanborn and Chenal, although there is literally a younger Sanborn (Bryan) who could see some rotational snaps next year.

This unit should, and will, be remembered for a long as they were the best part of one of the best defense’s in school history.

Defensive backs

Scott Nelson: 50 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, five passes defended, one interception, one TD
John Torchio: 35 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, three interceptions
Collin Wilder: 32 total tackles, three passes defended, three interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery
Caesar Williams: 28 total tackles, five passes defended, three interceptions, one TD, one forced fumble
Faion Hicks: 27 total tackles, eight passes defended

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin
Faion Hicks (No. 1) breaks up a pass.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This veteran unit also played great last season. While there could be some minor quibbles with how the team handles the deep ball they, overall, had a stellar year. It was great to see the four senior starters (Nelson, Hicks, Williams and Wilder) all have productive years with all of them, except Hicks, recording an interception and locking down some of the top receivers in the country, like Purdue’s David Bell.

There was a time not long ago where an opposing quarterback would drop back to pass and I would get nervous because I just knew it was going to be a first down or a big play, but that is no longer the case. As with the linebacking unit, it’ll be quite interesting to see who steps in and fills three of the starting spots (we are assuming that Torchio will be one of the starting safeties).