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Badgers' defense must keep up with Wake Forest's breakneck pace
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Badgers' defense must keep up with Wake Forest's breakneck pace

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Chenal celebrates sack

“We've been doing a lot of practice obviously, practicing for their tempo,” UW linebacker Leo Chenal (45) said of Wake Forest.

The speed of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense will be tested multiple ways Wednesday.

Wake Forest will spread out the Badgers (3-3) and try to outrun them at times. But the Demon Deacons (4-4) also will attempt to run as many plays as they can with an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that attacks defenses with the sheer volume of plays they must defend.

The matchup of those two units may determine the outcome of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, which is slated for an 11 a.m. kickoff at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. UW’s defense must hold up for the full game because Wake Forest has shown on multiple occasions its offense can erase deficits quickly.

“They understand who they are,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said last week.

“I think they run their system really well and they execute really well. They’re never afraid of being behind the sticks or being behind on the scoreboard. They trust what they do. The challenge there is understanding you’ve got a team that’s comfortable with who they are. You have to be patient at times and you have to be aggressive at times.”

Wake Forest averages 75.4 offensive plays and 435.3 yards per game. Both of those statistics would’ve ranked second in the Big Ten Conference this season, with the plays trailing Penn State and the yardage behind Ohio State. The Badgers didn’t play either of those conference foes.

The speed with which the Demon Deacons play puts pressure on defenses to relay plays from the sideline and line up quickly, and it also cuts down on the pre-snap adjustments that can be made. Communication for UW’s defense starts from the inside linebacker spots, which are manned by junior Jack Sanborn and sophomore Leo Chenal.

“We’ve been doing a lot of practice obviously, practicing for their tempo,” Chenal said. “Just being able to communicate the calls at a faster pace, being able to locate physically in our spots at a faster pace. But really I feel like conditioning-wise we’re ready to go. Obviously it’s going to be a little harder in that way. ... I think we’re ready for it.”

Chenal and Sanborn rarely have left the field this season, save for late-game situations when the score has been lopsided.

The Demon Deacons’ pace will affect how often the Badgers can rotate defenders. UW has used its depth well and gotten multiple playmakers involved at positions such as outside linebacker, defensive line and safety. UW may have to lean more on its top group if Wake Forest is able to move the ball consistently, taking away time to sub in players.

“I think (we) just have to work harder in practice. Practice your natural, just basics, like running to the ball or even extra conditioning after practice,” senior cornerback Caesar Williams said. “So I think guys just have to stay hydrated, know what’s coming at them and just be prepared for it because offenses change.”

UW’s defense can dictate the pace of the game if it plays well, especially against the pass and on third down. Incompletions will allow chances for substitutions and a breather for defenders, and getting off the field on third down will limit Wake Forest’s plays.

The Badgers’ third-down defense is the best in the FBS, allowing a 25.4% conversion rate.

Pace isn’t the only way the defense will be tested. Wake Forest’s rushing attack combines elements of zone-read and run-pass option concepts that can put defenders in a bind. Quarterback Sam Hartman moves toward the line of scrimmage with his running back on many plays, and he has the option to hand it off, run it himself or pull back the ball and throw.

It looks a little bit like what Minnesota’s offense has been under P.J. Fleck, however, the Gophers make the decision to run or throw faster so the blocking scheme is more traditional.

“We’ve been used to linemen hammering down and just getting on the run,” Chenal said. “But now we see this more like, slow, slow-paced (line), it’s really effective, but it’s just different for us. So we just have to make sure we play our game, still hitting things hard. Just play our game and not adjust to what they’re doing offensively.”

Hartman averages 238.3 passing yards per game and he’s only thrown one interception on 236 attempts. Leonhard called him “streaky at times” but said Hartman makes impressive throws down the field.

“I see him moving out of the pocket, throwing a ball away, just limiting those chances for interceptions to happen,” Williams said. “Then again, I sometimes see ACC defenses not taking advantage of the mistakes he puts out there.”

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