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Wisconsin defense review: Highs and lows against Arizona State

Many yards were surrendered and costly penalties committed, but the Badgers also had some bright spots vs. the Sun Devils.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

In Wisconsin's first real test of the season, the Badgers' defense faced a high-octane offense versus junior quarterback Taylor Kelly and the Arizona State offense with very mixed results. Taking on hybrid looks of no-huddle shotgun and pistol formations, Wisconsin stuffed the run but had difficulty controlling a passing game that put up 352 yards and an offense that ran 93 (yes, 93) plays.

Numbers to notice

0-9: Record of Big Ten teams facing Arizona State in Tempe (should there be an asterisk for this one? Who knows.)

10:13: Time of possession by Arizona State in the second quarter

32: Number of  first downs by the Sun Devils' offense

8-of-18: Arizona State's third-down efficiency

6: Penalties by the Badgers' defense, all by members of the secondary (one holding, four pass interferences, one personal foul)

3: Penalties Arizona State's offense committed (all procedural penalties)

3: Three-and-outs for the Sun Devils' offense

5: Three-and-outs by Wisconsin's offense

13: Number of points scored by Arizona State's offense on drives immediately after Wisconsin's 3-and-outs (three possessions)

5: Yards per play for Arizona State offense

3: Tackles for loss by Wisconsin's defense, compared to five versus Tennessee Tech

2.8: Average yards per rush for Arizona State

2: Number of turnovers forced by senior linebacker Chris Borland and co. (2013 total: six; 2013 prediction: 25)

1: Sacks by Wisconsin, its first of the year (Borland)

1: "Fat Guy Touchdown," senior defensive lineman Beau Allen on the fumble recovery in the end zone on a botched punt

0 for 2: Arizona State on 2-point conversion attempts

0 for 2: Arizona State on fourth down

Wisconsin went into Tempe not allowing a point after suffocating their previous opponents. Those who thought this would happen again, well, they should have had their heads checked. Facing Kelly, Strong, and senior running back Marlon Grice, the Badgers faced adversity like they have not gone up against so far this season. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda mostly implemented the following personnel -- with varying looks -- to counter the Sun Devil attack, which included not just a no-huddle spread look based on a shotgun formation, but a pistol look:

  • Base 3-4 odd front
  • Even front look with 3-4 personnel, with senior boundary-side linebacker Brendan Kelly lining up as a pseudo fourth linemen, although his hand is still not in the ground
  • A formation with one lineman (mostly senior Tyler Dippel), four linebackers and what appeared to be six defensive backs (mostly a 1-4-6 look)

The looks and plays called in those three personnel schemes showed a little more variety than in past weeks. There were times when five rushers bombarded Kelly, forcing some incompletions, along with some zone blitz looks with backers coming off the edge or through the middle, while seeing linemen dropping back into coverage. You also saw more of the secondary jump in on blitzes, with sophomore Darius Hilary and senior Dezmen Southward coming off the edges. Sophomore Nate Hammon got in on the rotation, at times appearing in a hybrid linebacker/safety look.

What went right

Head coach Gary Andersen thought his team played well on defense while throwing some schemes on Kelly & Co.

"I thought we did a solid job with that," he said during Monday's press conference. "Assignment-wise, we had a miscommunication on the one wheel route on our sidelines, that we didn't flip a coverage properly and quickly enough. But I thought overall the communication was pretty good."

Wisconsin stuffed Arizona State's run game. Although the Badgers allowed 116 yards, they did so on 43 carries, which is less than three yards per attempt. Borland, sophomore linebacker Joe Schobert and senior defensive end Pat Muldoon all registered TFLs.

Also to note, the defense provided clutch plays not only on fourth down, but also during two-point conversion attempts. The defense held its own on the first drive of the game, and Muldoon "sacked" Kelly on a two-point try in the second half.

A couple individuals stood out Saturday night in the desert:

  • Beau Allen. It was an impressive performance out of the senior. He pressured Kelly at times, made four tackles and ran down to recover the muffed punt for his touchdown in the second quarter. "He was active. He was physical," Andersen said. "He played a bunch of reps. He appeared to be in very good shape, which is really the first time this year that he's been challenged to play that number of plays, let alone play that number of plays in a game that's involved with pace and speed and the offense getting up and snapping the ball quickly."
  • Chris Borland. 10 tackles, one for loss and one sack. He rushed often and made his presence felt. Besides the previously mentioned stats, he also pressured and disrupted Kelly on the throw that led to Southward's interception in the third quarter, a critical play after Arizona State regained momentum once freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton mistakenly touched the ball on a fourth-down punt.

What went wrong

  • Back-shoulder throws. And to be honest, there's not much a defender can do against the perfect throw, which was utilized often in the second half. Kelly to Strong was a frequently heard combination, and the Wisconsin secondary was victimized, even with good man-to-man coverage. "Those back shoulder fades were thrown very, very well, timed up by the receivers well, and they caught some of those balls that even have a hard time contesting," Andersen said.
  • Penalties against the secondary. All of the penalties against the Badgers Saturday night were against the defense, particularly against the corners and safeties. There were two pass interferences apiece by Shelton and Hillary, along with a holding call by Shelton in the first quarter and Southward's late hit in the third quarter. Going against a highly efficient offense like the Sun Devils, this will give them some valuable experience heading into the Big Ten season. "You're going to have balls caught on you and you're going to have a PI if you play corner. Overall, we're handling it well, but there were a few too many in that game, and we can move forward," Andersen said. "I'm proud of those corners. I think those three kids are really competing. Especially P.J. (Peniel Jean) should be mentioned in my mind because he's played limited, but he really got himself in in the second half, and it will continue to be a three-man rotation there."
  • Big plays in the passing game. After not allowing many big plays in the first two games of the season, Wisconsin gave up 11 plays of 15 or more yards. It is expected against a versatile and highly-efficient offense like Arizona State. To counter the spread looks on third down, the Badgers employed the 1-4-6 personnel, one that's given mostly positive results for the Badgers, but that personnel gave up four first downs (one rush, two passes, one penalty).
  • Big gains on first and second downs. Nine of Arizona State's 18 third-down attempts were from greater than five yards. 17 first down plays went for more than five yards, and the Sun Devils put themselves in great position to set up manageable third downs as well as move the sticks without even worrying about a third-down conversion. Some of that can be blamed on the high-energy, no-huddle scheme Arizona State head coach Todd Graham dictates to his offense, but yards were nevertheless given up.
  • Final thoughts

    The first real test for the Badgers' defense came Saturday night. Think of it as a freshman's first exam of his or her's college career. Most of the time, you have some good results mixed with some you wish you had back. The "Debacle in the Desert," as coined by many in the media, allowed the Badgers to face a challenge and a worthy opponent. Though 468 yards were gained by the opposition and a loss was recorded, and as much as that will be debated, some positives can be taken from the contest.

    With the pro-style Boilermakers coming up in a few days, and the fast, spread-based Buckeyes and Wildcats on the horizon, it's best to have corrections identified and corrected before the Big Ten season begins.