Swagger, mojo, fire — call it whatever you want, but the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense lost it at the end of October.
A stunning loss at Illinois exposed some of the unit’s vulnerabilities when being spread out and then gashed with big runs. A blowout the next week — while somewhat anticipated because of how talented and complete a team Ohio State has this season — only made things look worse.
UW took its bye week to recoup, and senior inside linebacker Chris Orr was adamant with his teammates to once again find the spark that made the defense what it was early in the season.
“Chris really harped on coming back and being us again, because we feel like we lost our edge and our swagger, some people said,” freshman nose tackle Keeanu Benton said. “This week, he made sure, he was like, ‘We’ve got to come back and play nasty football and stay physical.’ We picked up the physicality a lot this week.”
The result was a solid performance against a tough Iowa team that was fighting to keep its hopes alive for a Big Ten Conference West Division championship. The 24-22 win was highlighted by Orr and safety Eric Burrell stuffing Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley at the goal line for what would’ve been the tying 2-point conversion.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said the play was one he’d remember for a while, and displayed the willingness to lay it all on the line that he wants his unit to have.
“Still a lot of room to grow, still a lot of meat left on the bone from that last game, but we’ll definitely get it fixed. I think we definitely started turning back in the right direction, back to being a physical, nasty, ferocious defense,” Orr said.
The 15th-ranked Badgers (7-2, 4-2) will need to carry that attitude into Saturday’s Freedom Trophy game against Nebraska (4-5, 2-4). The Cornhuskers have lost three consecutive games in coach Scott Frost’s second season, but they feature a similar brand of spread offense that Illinois and Ohio State employ.
While Nebraska doesn’t have the talent of Ohio State, it is similarly skilled as Illinois, which lost to the Cornhuskers in a shootout early this season. UW defenders insist they’ve learned from the mistakes they made against those spread offenses and are focused on showing it Saturday.
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“They just feel like they have better athletes than us, so they try to spread you out and try to beat you one-on-one,” Burrell said of spread opponents. “But I think we’ve got a good plan, so I’m excited with what we have.”
Quarterback Adrian Martinez poses a running threat that is difficult to handle, and the amount of read-option runs — plays in which Martinez watches how defenders react to a potential handoff and can keep the ball if there’s room for a quarterback run — make Nebraska an explosive offense.
UW coach Paul Chryst said the lessons learned from the team’s losses can be applied to this week, but it’s not quite apples-to-apples.
“You have to be careful, you can’t just go, ‘This is what we did, we had success with, we can do this,’ or, ‘We didn’t, fix that and we’ll be in good shape.’ I don’t think it’s that simple,” he said.
“There’s absolutely takeaways that you can take, but again I think it starts with their quarterback. I’m not saying we haven’t played teams with good quarterbacks with good skill around them, I just think it’s a little bit different week that way.”
UW didn’t tackle well in its losses, and missed some tackles that led to chunk plays for Iowa last week as well.
That’s an area that Leonhard says is crucial this week — the Cornhuskers are “creative” in the way the make space for their players to run, so being able to get ball-carriers to the ground in one-on-one tackling scenarios is imperative.
“You’ve got to find a way to get that second hat to the football,” Leonhard said. “They’re finding ways to occupy guys to only allow you to get one to the ball, and you have to do your job a little bit more this week.
“But No. 1, it always comes down to tackling. Those are the situations that got us late in those games. I think a little bit of fatigue, and a little bit of just got to play with better technique. That’s kind of the emphasis for our guys. Pushing through that and always focusing on that. The essence of football, it’s going to come down to tackling and getting off of blocks.”