University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda saw something in his players’ preparation leading up to the Penn State game that had him concerned.
“There weren’t any mistakes, the practices were clean,” Aranda said. “There was a very limited number of errors. I thought guys, for the most part, were where they needed to be and doing what they needed to do. What was missing, through, I felt, was an intensity and focus.”
In short, the defensive players did not seem as locked in as they normally are before a game. One small example was the communication. Usually, there is incessant chatter between the first and second defenses about how they are going to handle different plays and situations. But leading up to the final regular-season game? Not so much.
“For lack of a better term, there wasn’t a lot of juice at practice,” Aranda said. “There wasn’t the kind of intensity, fire and focus that was introduced to me as being Wisconsin football.”
Even though some alarm bells went off inside his head, it wasn’t enough to cause Aranda to say anything to his players — something he will regret for a long time following the disappointing 31-24 loss to the Nittany Lions on Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium.
Given how well the Badgers’ defense played all season, maybe Aranda figured they would lock in when the game started.
“That’s my responsibility, because I did not address it,” he said. “When I look back, I don’t know what I was thinking, that it would be all right. We were playing well (in previous games) up to that point. We would overcome it, or whatever, because it wasn’t like we were ‘busting’ (making assignment errors) throughout the week, but it just didn’t feel right.
“I think everybody felt that. I’ve talked to the guys since about what led into everything and everybody felt that. They all felt there was kind of a fog over the practices, over everything. There definitely was a fog during the game.”
That was only the start of a brutally honest assessment this past week by Aranda about what went wrong with his highly ranked defense in the final game of the regular season — and what needs fixing in time to play No. 8 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1.
The previous game could not have been more out of character for the nation’s No. 6 defense, which is allowing 294 yards per game and was so reliable for most of the season. And it’s a loss that will stick with Aranda for a long time.
“It will stay for a while,” he said. “It hasn’t gone anywhere yet.”
State of confusion
All of the defense’s problems getting properly lined up came down to confusion over two personnel groupings: “21” and “21-T.”
The number “21” signifies two backs and one tight end, along with two wide receivers. That’s the standard pro-style formation, used extensively by the Badgers and many teams. The twist was the “21-T,” with the “T” standing for an extra tackle. That meant only one wide receiver on the field.
The Badgers had defenses tailor-made for both personnel groupings, but the problem came in a failure to quickly identify which personnel group was on the field when Aranda asked for it on the headset before making the defensive call.
“The only times we struggled getting people on and off the field was because we could not tell the difference between ‘21’ personnel and ‘21-T,’ ” Aranda said.
To Penn State’s credit, when it saw the confusion, it went to a faster tempo, something it had not normally shown, which made the situation even worse.
“It’s my responsibility,” Aranda said. “What I should have done, knowing we were struggling with it, would be to stop asking for (the personnel group), just call a base defense and let it play out. And then work it out on the sidelines, when we’re all off the field — and I didn’t do that. I kept asking for it.”
The confusion led to an uncovered wide receiver, making for an uncontested 3-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half by Penn State. That was followed by an embarrassing defensive possession on the Nittany Lions’ touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half.
UW’s defense was penalized for having 12 players on the field on one play, then played with only nine on the next snap. After that drive, Aranda stopped asking for the personnel group and the defense played better.
“Guys just got lined up, not having to wait,” Aranda said. “I should have done it earlier.”
UW coach Gary Andersen said he didn’t see a problem with the defense’s preparation that week and thought it was a case of Aranda searching for answers after the defense’s poor performance.
“I think that’s the sign of a great coach, when you can sit back and if you don’t think it’s right, you need to try and correct yourself,” Andersen said. “Sometimes that’s a feeling (before a game) and you play very well. It goes the other way, too, in those situations.
“But Dave feels responsible any time the defense doesn’t play well. He’s always going to look back and try to dissect it.”
The problems went beyond a failure to line up properly. Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for 339 yards and four touchdowns. He was not sacked and rarely pressured.
Aranda rushed four most of the time because he needed an extra defender to double-team wide receiver Allen Robinson, who finished with eight receptions for 122 yards. Penn State used maximum-protection schemes and, with no pressure on Hackenberg, he picked the defense apart.
UW’s defense also missed starting safety Michael Caputo, who was out due to concussion symptoms.
“The way we had been playing our safeties, there were certain guys doing certain things,” Aranda said. “A lot of it was base defense, things we’ve been doing all year long. Within those base defenses are certain adjustments, certain schematic things that only Caputo did. That was his role.
“He would take the tight end on a motion, or he would play in a certain alignment versus a certain look, only he did those things. With him being gone, all of those things kind of add up when you put a new guy in that spot.”
Penn State’s offense was a step ahead the entire game, as evidenced by the 61-yard run on a draw on third-and-9 late in the game which helped ice the win.
Aranda said he had a new defensive call put in during the week for that exact situation. But he was gun-shy given all of the things that went wrong and didn’t call it. The unused call featured the same coverage, but a twist up front, with pass rushers looping behind each other, which might have clogged up the running lane Zach Zwinak bolted through up the middle.
“Looking back, I should have been more aggressive with it and called the same coverage, just a different front,” Aranda said. “We had been bitten enough by various other things in the game that I didn’t want to do anything new. I wanted to kind of do what we had done in the past, all year long, what we hung our hat on. That’s another lesson right there.”
Aranda has spent the two weeks since that game going over the lessons he learned in an attemptto make sure they don’t happen again.
“We’re a whole lot better than that,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s indicative of us, of our senior group, or our defense, our coaches and all of it. A loss like that, I was talking to the guys (earlier in the week) about it. Something like that makes you re-evaluate, whether good or bad, everything you do.
“Every little thing, you look at it, to evaluate it all. It’s difficult when something like that happens because it makes you have to look at tough things.”
But Aranda made it clear he blamed himself, not the players, for any preparation issues.
“I wouldn’t put it on them, I’d put it on me,” he said. “I should have done a better job in getting them prepared. I take full responsibility for that. That’s in my job description. That’s something we will chalk it up as a learning experience and I’ll do my darnedest not to let that happen (again).”
Saturday night awards
The Badgers handed out awards on Saturday night at the annual team banquet at the Gordon Event Center on campus, with senior linebacker Chris Borland earning the Jimmy Demetral team MVP He was one of 15 seniors to take home awards.
Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and running back James White shared honors for Offensive Player of the Year, while nose guard Beau Allen and safety Dezmen Southward shared the award for Defensive Player of the Year.
The other winners: Special Teams Player: Kyle Zuleger; Wayne Sousa Coaches’ Appreciation (offense): Jacob Pedersen, Brian Wozniak; Jay Seiler Coaches’ Appreciation (defense): Tyler Dippel, Pat Muldoon; Ivan Williamson Scholastic: Curt Phillips; Tom Wiesner, Ryan Groy, Ethan Hemer; Badger Power Award: Vince Biegel; Comeback Player of the Year: Ethan Armstrong, Brendan Kelly; Most Improved Offense: Melvin Gordon; Most Improved Defense: Caputo. Offensive Scout Player: Connor Senger; Defensive Scout Player: Chikwe Obasih; Otis Green Manager: Joe Spiegelhoff; Captains’ Cup: Sandy Freye, Lisa Powell.