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Wisconsin defense review: First half dooms Badgers vs. Ohio State

In a tail of two halves, Wisconsin's defense limited Braxton Miller, but not before sufficient damage was done.

Jamie Sabau

The Wisconsin Badgers knew they were going into a hostile environment Saturday night in Columbus against quarterback Braxton Miller and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Between OSU's many offensive weapons and a renewed speed that Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen acknowledged leading up to game day, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and company knew they would have their hands full.

After a disastrous first half in which Wisconsin gave up its first three touchdown passes of the year, along with 269 of Ohio State's 390 total yards of offense, linebacker Chris Borland and his defense regrouped and held Miller and his offense to only 121 second-half yards. The Badgers, however, could not overcome their first-half mistakes.

Numbers to notice

390: Number of total yards Ohio State gained (compared to Arizona State's 468 and Purdue's 180 vs. Wisconsin)

21: Number of first downs by Ohio State (compared to Arizona State's 32 and Purdue's 12)

4: Tackles for loss by Wisconsin

0: Quarterback hurries by Wisconsin (compared to seven against Purdue)

2: Three-and-outs by Ohio State's offense, both in the fourth-quarter

2: Recorded sacks by Wisconsin, both by nose guard Warren Herring

3: Sacks by Herring for the year, tied for the Big Ten lead

5.7: Yards per play for Ohio State's offense

6-of-15: Ohio State's third-down efficiency

14: First-quarter points by Ohio State

102: First-quarter points by Ohio State coming into game

4: Penalties Ohio State's offense committed (three accepted)

0: Number of turnovers Wisconsin forced (2013 total: seven; 2013 prediction: 25)

Wisconsin returned to facing a spread offense, like it for three of the previous four opponents, but this time taking into account two big-play backs in Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall and wide receivers Corey Brown and Devin Smith.

To counter an offense that heading into Saturday's game was outscoring its opponents 102-14, Aranda used the following personnel:

  • 3-4 odd front with a bit of a wrinkle: Sophomore safety Mike Caputo, for a good portion of the game, played one of the outside linebacker positions, sort of a hybrid position that allowed them to play with five defensive backs on the field (more on that fifth DB in a bit)
  • Even front out of the 3-4 (or 3-3-5 look with Caputo in there)
  • A new look to the defense, where it appeared the Badgers had a 3-2-6 defense, with Borland and senior linebacker Brendan Kelly on the outside of the three-down linemen in a blitz look

What went wrong

1. Three big-play touchdown passes against the Badgers' secondary. It started on the Buckeyes' first offensive series with true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton being left on an island trying to defend two receivers, which ended with Evan Spencer's 25-yard touchdown reception. Surrendering its first four touchdown receptions this season, the defense also allowed scores of 26, 40 and 1 yard. More on the third touchdown pass surrendered right before half in a bit.

2. Miscues. A dropped interception to end the half. A facemask penalty by linebacker Conor O'Neill negating a fumble recovery by the Badgers (albeit a controversial call, but you know refs will call anything when a player's head turns like Miller's did). Mixed-up coverage that resulted in a dagger-like feeling heading into halftime. Wisconsin had opportunities to stop the bleeding at times, but did not.

3. The last offensive play of the first half. Playing what seemed to be Cover 2 that was confirmed by Andersen during his Monday press conference. Safety Dezmen Southward let Brown slip behind him on a 40-yard touchdown pass to make it a 24-14 advantage heading into half, after the offense put together a drive to make it 17-14. The coach took part of the blame and provided some insight into the decision-making process late in the second quarter.

"That's a thinking game for a head coach and a defensive coordinator and the DB coach," Andersen said. "Those moments, we made the decision fairly quickly to, you know, just basically play cover two. There's a lot of dynamics, if they can throw it in the end zone, try to get 15 yards underneath, you drop eight, you drop five under three-deep zone, there's going to be a hole in there about 20 yards, they get a chip-shot field goal.

"I support the call that was made, I support the decision that was made. Can we play that better? Yeah, but I'm not going to put that on a kid. As coaches we can coach it better, put P.J. (Peniel Jean) or whoever is back there in a better spot. We failed the kids in that system in the moment to not get him in the spot. But it's the call that was made."

4. Ohio State's running game. Wisconsin came into the game with a top-10 rushing defense. With Hyde and Miller gaining 168 of their 192 total rushing yards, the Buckeyes showed the Badgers a balanced threat through the air and on the ground. Credit goes to Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer for attacking a strength of the Badgers, although not seeing more Jordan Hall or Dontre Wilson was puzzling, given their speed.

5. Big plays on first and second down. Looking at the 16 first-down and 10 second-down plays, the Buckeyes gained 8.9 and 6.6 yards per play, respectively. Not a lot of 3rd-and-longs for them to worry about. The first two touchdown passes came on first down, and also out of the no-huddle pistol look Ohio State employed.

What went right

1. Borland. As wide receiver Jared Abbrederis had a career day on a nationally-televised stage, the senior linebacker flew across the field Saturday night. 16 tackles (10 unassisted), including short-yardage stops on fourth down against a bulldozer in Hyde where he shot the gap and held his ground. It was one of the most impressive games he's played in his storied Wisconsin career.  "Chris was all over the place all night long," Andersen said. "Sixteen-plus tackles, he was physical, he was aggressive, he ran well, got pass drops well."

2. Second-half defense. Averaging 9 yards per play on first down and almost 7 on second down in the first two quarters, Wisconsin's defense stiffened up, allowing only 4.5 yards per play on first down and a meager 3.1 yards per play on second down.

3. Herring and Pat Muldoon. Muldoon, the senior, made some nice stops around the line of scrimmage to help contain the Buckeyes' running game. Herring's impact has been felt, with two sacks this week as a solid complement to nose guard Beau Allen. The coaching staff has taken notice. "He's a little bit of a different player than Beau (Allen) is. Warren is very athletic," Andersen said. "What's most impressive is the plays that he didn't necessarily make a tackle in this game, I thought he controlled the line, he knocked back the center, who was a very good center, that's a very good offensive line."

4. Tanner McEvoy and Caputo. The sophomore junior college transfer, playing his third position in two months, got extended time playing at safety while Caputo played more toward the line in the F-side linebacker spot. Tanner had four tackles on the night, and for a player thrusted into the defensive backfield so quickly, it sounds like he'll be in the rotation. "Who would have thought that in July, huh?" Andersen said.

5. Caputo can play anywhere on the field. It's been noted in the past by the coaching staff how he likes to tackle and be physical. His versatility of playing safety and outside linebacker has shown itself to be a real factor in Wisconsin showing different personnel, like it did Saturday night. "Tanner had practiced well. To throw him in the that moment was definitely risky, to say the least," Andersen said. "That's what we felt we needed to do. I am impressed with the way he's going forward. I'm also impressed with Michael Caputo coming down and playing the F linebacker. We'll continue down those lines as we move forward because both those kids deserve that."

Final thoughts

A tough pill for the Badgers to swallow, but one they'll definitely learn from. Their second-half adjustments helped curtail a potent Buckeyes offense, along with several impressive individual performances, but Ohio State won enough battles in the game to come out on top. Another spread look comes two Saturdays from now with Northwestern. How will Borland and company respond from a rough loss at Columbus, especially against playmakers such as Kain Colter and Venric Mark? We shall soon see.