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Wisconsin's dominant defense only getting better

Wisconsin is one of five teams in the FBS to rank in the top 10 in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON -- The schematic change the Wisconsin defense ushered in this season goes beyond the visual transformation, or simply the number of players with their hands in the dirt.

Brendan Kelly doesn't believe enough fans realize this. Switching from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker, the senior endured perhaps the most drastic change this year among his Badger teammates.

"The hardest part of it is the underlying thought process of the change between the 4-3 and the 3-4," he said. "It's a lot more head-up verses a gap. You're playing a guy instead of the gap, and that type of thinking, it takes a while to break some habits."

It's supposed to sound more difficult than one would think, but Kelly and his defensive teammates have made the transition appear easy.

Wisconsin enters Saturday's regular-season finale against Penn State ranked in the top-10 nationally in scoring defense (fifth), rushing defense (seventh), passing defense (10th) and total defense (sixth).

"The first inkling of it was after the Arizona State game, just how to play our people. This year is not last year. It's not Utah State." -Dave Aranda

First-year head coach Gary Andersen attributes a big part of the immediate success to the players' ability to accept the roles placed upon them, whether or not that role was as substantial as they would like it to be.

Wisconsin plays so many packages, Andersen said, that some highly talented players aren't going to see the field every snap.

"I think a lot of guys have just bought in," nose tackle Beau Allen said. "I think across the board everyone kind of knows their role and what's expected of them, and they really just embrace it. I think we've really done a good job of that -- unselfish guys that just do what they've got to do to get the job done."

Depth has allowed the coaching staff to integrate that philosophy, and it has given the Badgers more versatility within the new scheme to remain unpredictable.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said there are many things -- such as running a twist up front on third-down passing situations -- Wisconsin does this year that Aranda never would have called up last season at Utah State. The personnel has allowed him to do more, something he said he didn't fully realize until after the Badgers' loss to Ohio State.

"The first inkling of it was after the Arizona State game, just how to play our people," Aranda said. "This year is not last year. It's not Utah State. It's not the same type of guys. We need to play to our strengths. We've done that."

Aranda also said having a veteran group in the front seven sped up the adjustment period when the team first installed the new scheme, and the improvement of a young secondary has helped Wisconsin's defense become the dominant unit that it is now.

"We've been able to play man coverage against good people," he said.

It's shown in the second half of the season. Wisconsin has held its 10 FBS opponents to 14.6 points under its current scoring average this season, a number that jumps to 21.8 when calculating just the past four games.

The emergence of converted safeties like Tanner McEvoy and Nate Hammon, along with the continued development of an inexperienced cornerback group has caught up to a front seven that entered the season as veterans.

"Third- and fourth-string guys are playing like starters," senior safety Dezmen Southward said. "It's really big-time because guys aren't getting tired. We're just throwing fresh guys out there and they're making plays. No matter who they call on, every week we're going to make plays, and I think that's been huge as far as our development in this new scheme."

Players give much of the credit to their new coaching staff, particularly Aranda, who managed a Utah State defense last year that finished seventh nationally in scoring defense.

Kelly said Aranda's greatest strength may be recognizing his players' strengths and taking advantage of them. The former defense end believes he's a perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

"If Beau Allen's good at clogging up the middle, taking two guys, he's going to do that," Kelly said. "He's not going to be out there on the edge playing man coverage on a tight end. Coach Aranda does a great job of putting guys in situations where they're able to succeed. He uses their skill set to their advantage. He does a great job of putting everyone in their place."

And, as with many things, time has been the simplest form of improvement for the Badgers' defense.

"As we started to figure the defense out, the type of camaraderie we had playing in the 4-3 translated to the 3-4," Kelly said. "There's not a lot of confusion out there anymore. We all know what we have to do, and it's going real smooth."