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Wisconsin defense review: No Chris Borland, no problem

A game-time decision not to play Chris Borland didn't hurt the Badgers' defense as much as one might have thought.

Matthew Holst

Coming off Wisconsin's second bye week in October, many believed linebacker Chris Borland would return from an injured hamstring. But for those who follow Wisconsin sports teams -- namely the Green Bay Packers -- hamstring injuries are always touchy and the ETA of one's return linger up in the air. Saturday was another example of the volatility of said injury, and it seemed with the loss of Borland to injury as well as defensive lineman Tyler Dippel to a family issue, the shorthanded defense might be vulnerable against an Iowa offense that stayed neck-and-neck with Ohio State for three quarters.

We thought wrong.

With linebacker Marcus Trotter stepping up again in his second straight game of relief, the Wisconsin defense held a fourth opponent's offense to zero touchdowns as the Badgers kept the Heartland Trophy.

Numbers to notice

6th: National ranking for Wisconsin in total defense, giving up 286.1 yards per game (second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State)

5th: National ranking for Wisconsin in scoring defense, giving up 15.0 points per game (second in the Big Ten behind Michigan State)

5th: National ranking for Wisconsin in rush defense, giving up 91.0 yards per game (third in Big Ten)

15th: National ranking for Wisconsin in pass defense, allowing 195.1 yards per game (third in Big Ten)

+3: Turnover margin for Wisconsin on the season (five fumble recoveries + seven interceptions - nine turnovers), tied for 41st in the nation in turnovers per game

4-of-18: Iowa's third-down efficiency

179: Passing yards given up by Wisconsin's defense

115: Rushing yards given up by Wisconsin's defense

1: Number of sacks by Wisconsin's defense

8: Tackles for loss by Wisconsin's defense

7: Quarterback hits by Wisconsin's defense

8: Three-and-outs by Iowa's offense (including a one-play drive that resulted in the Darius Hillary interception)

4: Red-zone opportunities for Iowa

0: Red-zone touchdowns for Iowa

Against a more pro-style offense -- only the second true pro look the Badgers have faced all season -- defensive coordinator Dave Aranda employed the following looks:

  • A base 3-4 personnel look with an odd front, used a lot more Saturday against the pro-style offense.
  • A 3-4 personnel with an even front, with an outside linebacker (like Brendan Kelly or Ethan Armstrong) as the psuedo-fourth linemen
  • A 2-4-5 look, with two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs, with Vince Biegel rushing off the edge with Kelly.
  • That crazy 1-4-6 alignment, with Pat Muldoon acting as the lone defensive linemen in place of Dippel, with Kelly, Armstrong and Joe Schobert rushing, as well as some fun mixes in blitzing personnel with the secondary as well.

What went right

1. Pressure on Iowa quarterbacks. Wisconsin had only one sack, but seven quarterback hurries confused quarterbacks Jake Rudock an C.J. Beathard, which showed in some of their throws. Some of the fun looks seen in that 1-4-6 look included blitzes from the secondary, as Mike Caputo, Tanner McEvoy and Dezmen Southward, rushed from every direction. Pressure by Armstrong and Trotter led to costly interceptions for the Hawkeyes, which the Badgers converted into 14 points.

2. No touchdowns allowed. Four times Iowa drove inside the Wisconsin red zone. Four times Iowa came away without a touchdown. A big credit to the Badgers' defense to hold the Hawkeyes to only three field goals.

3. Muldoon. He pressured Rudock and Beathard, earning a half-sack and a quarterback hit, as well as a leaping interception off a deflected ball in the fourth quarter. This year he's played very well from what I've seen during games, and with Dippel out, he and fellow defensive end Ethan Hemer stepped up big in Iowa City.


4. Another 4th-and-1 stop. It was a classic power-left run by the Hawkeyes, who converted on a few close third-down conversions earlier in the game. But defensive back Nate Hammon stuffed his blocker a yard behind the line of scrimmage, allowing Trotter and company to converge on running back Mark Weisman and halt an Iowa drive in Wisconsin territory.

5. Players stepping up with injuries mounting. Sans Borland and Dippel, the defense had something to prove after a so-so performance against Illinois. The bye week helped them prepare and regroup, and Trotter, who led the team in tackles against the Illini, showed he can start and that he belonged, recording a team-high nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hit (the one that led to the Muldoon interception). The defensive line also stepped up in a tough situation in Kinnick Stadium.

What went wrong

1. One long rushing play. The backside hole was opened up wide for running back Jordan Canzeri, leading the Hawkeyes to threaten after the Badgers went up, 14-6. Canzeri beat Caputo to the edge and ended up with a 43-yard gain. Besides that run, the Badgers' rush defense allowed just 89 yards, and even with that run, still only gave up 3.6 yards per rush.

2. Slant to the left side. A couple of times I saw this, and regardless of who was covering the particular play, whether it was Sojourn Shelton or Hillary, the Hawkeyes saw an opening on a slant pattern from the left side. Whether the corner had man-to-man coverage or was hoping the safety would be there on the inside to provide help, it was open a couple of times. The defense held Iowa to 179 passing yards, though.

Final thoughts

Another spread-heavy team makes its way to Camp Randall Stadium Saturday, as the BYU Cougars come to Madison to take on the Badgers. Quarterback Taysom Hill has thrown for over 2,000 yards, along with nearly 800 rushing yards and a per-carry average nearing 6 yards. He has, however, thrown eight interceptions, one in at least six of BYU's eight games. I expect Caputo to be an "extra athlete" on the field as an F-side linebacker as previously seen against spread-like teams, along with more playing time for McEvoy at safety.