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.”
Breaking down the Badgers’ 2021 recruiting class
Breaking down the Wisconsin Badgers 2021 recruiting class by position
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Deacon Hill (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Quick analysis: Hill has a strong arm and shown enough in camps to rise to a four-star recruit on Rivals. Competition level is a question mark at the high school level, but he’s got the tools to be a good college quarterback.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Hill: Quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr “identified him really early. We thought he had great arm strength when you compared him to the best players in the country who were out there. We thought he was right there from the jump. … We really liked him, we felt personality-wise the people that surrounded him and supported him, how he worked, all those things were a great fit for us.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jackson Acker (Madison), Braelon Allen, (Fond du Lac), Loyal Crawford (Eau Claire), Antwan Roberts (Nashville, Tenn.)
Quick analysis: There’s been talk about Acker switching positions at the college level, but UW listed him as a running back Wednesday. Acker didn’t play in the fall due to COVID-19, but he has shown a good mix of speed and power as a ball carrier. … Allen is a surprise to move to this group, weighing 240 pounds, but he's got an athleticism and physicality that's rare for his age. ... Crawford has a James White-level ceiling as a third-down back and the most shiftiness of the bunch. … Roberts has explosion and proven ability to run through tackles.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re all kind of unique. Jackson’s a guy that obviously would have position flexibility, but he kind of is explosive. … Then you see Loyal, and Loyal’s got great speed, great change of direction, a chance for a home run hitter. I think he’s got great quicks in and out and, again, I think all these guys, we’ll find out exactly where they’re at when they come in, but I think guys that are just really good football players as well. … Antwan, what he does to this point, complete back and had a great senior year.”
Number of players: 2
Who are they: Skyler Bell (Bronx, N.Y.), Markus Allen (Clayton, Ohio)
Quick analysis: The Badgers landed two players who possess good speed and agility at arguably the biggest position of need in the class. … Bell has a suddenness to his cuts that makes him dangerous as a receiver and returner. … Allen shows good ball skills when making contested catches and great body control.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Bell, who wasn’t able to visit campus before committing: “I just think you take the time to reach out. Whether it was Zoom meetings with him and his family, or whether it was phone calls, you took the time to be able to answer questions that pop up in their minds. I think those things are always huge.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Jack Pugh (Columbus, Ohio)
Quick analysis: He has long strides that help him cover a lot of ground and he’s shown an array of route-running skills from both an on-line and split-out positions.
Rudolph’s thoughts on Pugh: “Jack played his first year of football last year. This was his second year. Really a guy that was a hoop player that jumped into it. Watching his film, I thought he was really physical for a guy that hadn’t played football. He was physical at D-end as well as tight end. I think he’s got the ability to separate. I think he’s got really a lot of speed and explosiveness.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: JP Benzschawel (Grafton), Riley Mahlman (Lakeville, Minn.), Nolan Rucci (Lititz, Pa.)
Quick analysis: The Badgers are set up to continue churning out great O-lines for years to come after an impressive haul of linemen in 2019. … Benzschawel is the third of his brothers to come to UW, and he’s shown great power and strength as a blocker. … Mahlman might be the most athletic of the bunch, having played tight end for a time in high school and as a basketball standout. … Rucci, the lone five-star recruit in the class, has all the tools to become an All-American tackle.
Rudolph’s thoughts on the group: “I think they’re big, athletic guys that you have to have as defenses are pretty darn athletic and being able to keep up with them. … I think those guys match in their work ethic and their mind-set, I think they’ll make a major impact here.”
Number of players: 1
Who are they: Mike Jarvis (Medford, N.J.)
Quick analysis: Jarvis was recruited as both an offensive and defensive lineman, but UW will look to make him a defensive end. He has good quickness but will need to add weight and strength at the college level.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Jarvis: “He fits what we do, the right mentality. He can get after people. Very physically impressive at the high school level. We’re looking forward to developing his skills as we continue to push what we can ask our defensive line to do. You turn on a tape and you go, ‘Dang, everything we ask our guys to do, he’s putting on tape for you.’”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Jake Chaney (Cape Coral, Fla.), Jake Ratzlaff (Rosemount, Minn.), Bryan Sanborn (Lake Zurich, Ill.)
Quick analysis: UW won't need these players to be ready to play immediately after seniors Jack Sanborn and Mike Maskalunas decided to stay this offseason. … Chaney posted back-to-back 100-tackle seasons as a junior and senior and has a nose for attacking the ball and creating fumbles. … Ratzlaff is another wild card. He has the speed and athleticism to play at any linebacker spot and turned down a hockey scholarship to Minnesota to play football. … Bryan Sanborn has good closing speed and often was used as a blitzer in high school.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Ratzlaff: “We’re excited for him because as talented as he is, he really has not focused solely on football. So we still feel like there’s a ton of growth in his game and coming from a very, very high, high level of play already.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Ayo Adebogun (Mequon), TJ Bollers (Tiffin, Iowa), Darryl Peterson (Akron, Ohio)
Quick analysis: This group rivals the O-line as the deepest, most talented chunk of the class, but don’t be surprised if one or more of these players ends up being listed at another position in the future. … Adebogun, a lineman in high school, has a tremendous first step. … Bollers has the size to potentially play on the line, but the quickness and block-shedding of an outside backer. … Peterson was a prolific pass rusher in high school and could help UW soon.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Bollers: “We love his versatility. (We) see him as an outside linebacker, kind of plus. We think he can do a little bit more than that position and provide some flexibility for us. Great physicality with what he shown in high school. As he grows into his body, it’s going to be a lot of fun to put him in different positions.”
Number of players: 3
Who are they: Al Ashford III (Denver, Colo.), Ricardo Hallman (Miami, Fla.), Hunter Wohler (Muskego)
Quick analysis: Ashford already plays with the aggressive style that Leonhard loves and he’s borderline obsessive about learning and refining technique. … Hallman is a true ball hawk and uses his athleticism to close on balls in the air faster than opposing receivers. … Wohler, Wisconsin’s two-time AP state player of the year, is a special blend of ball skills and physicality as a safety.
Leonhard’s thoughts on Wohler: “Probably as highly recruited of a skill player in the state in a long time. Extremely talented. What he does at the safety position in impacting games at that level was a lot of fun to watch.”