University of Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard allowed his young cornerbacks to show what they’re made of Saturday, and they didn’t disappoint.
The Badgers blitzed more often and played more man coverage in their 31-17 win over Rutgers than we’ve typically seen this season, and with the exception of a couple sizable gains from running back Raheem Blackshear out of the slot, the Scarlet Knights’ receiving corps failed to create any separation.
Don’t let 261 passing yards from a poor Rutgers offense fool you into thinking the Scarlet Knights got the better of UW’s secondary. Eighty-five of those came on four running back screen passes (an unintended consequence of bringing more pressure), and their wide receivers accounted for just 34 yards on six catches.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Badgers brought five or more rushers on 14 of 43 passing snaps (32.5 percent) against Rutgers. In their previous eight games, they only did so 20.7 percent of the time, or 6.75 times on average per contest. It’s a big reason why quarterback Artur Sitkowski spent much of the day on the ground.
The Badgers’ success against the run forced the Scarlet Knights into more third-and-long situations, which could partially explain the increased number of blitzes, but that uptick wouldn’t have occurred without a certain level of confidence that UW’s cornerbacks would hold up in man coverage.
The Badgers call a similar blitz in both third-down stops shown above, initially bringing five rushers before a second inside linebacker joins in.
In the first video, Madison Cone successfully jams the slot receiver, Rachad Wildgoose doesn’t fall for a stutter step on the near side and Faion Hicks (at the top of the screen) gets an early read on his man’s route and times his break perfectly to knock the ball away and force a Rutgers punt.
In the second, the outside corners play tight to Rutgers’ receivers and do a great job of staying in front of them, waiting to commit to a particular direction until those wideouts show themselves. You can’t see Wildgoose the entire play from this TV angle, but he defends Blackshear (who goes in motion pre-snap) really well to make the pass breakup.
"You've got to cover if you're going to go after the quarterback," Leonhard said. "You have to be able to cover, and our guys are challenging. Their understanding of situational football, especially third down, is growing throughout the course of the year.
"Not to say it's the plan and the right thing to do every week, but the last couple weeks we've been able to get after the quarterback and kind of do some unique things."
I noted in our film room after the Nebraska game that UW’s corners were often playing very deep off receivers early in the season, sometimes to their detriment. As shown in that story from last month, the Cornhuskers picked up a number of first downs off quick passes when the Badgers were playing 8-10 yards off.
While it could be at least in part due to limitations of the opponent, UW wanted to close that breathing room Saturday, and not only when blitzing on third down.
Hicks, perhaps the best of the bunch Saturday, couldn’t have played that pass much better. The redshirt freshman caught a little heat from fans earlier this year, but throughout this season, he’s played better than his critics give him credit for.
He probably hugged the line of scrimmage more than anyone against the Scarlet Knights and remained consistently glued to his man throughout the game. Hicks starts each of the following plays at the top of the screen.
Wildgoose, UW’s other current starter, transformed into a wonderful surprise over the second half of the season. The true freshman spent fall camp’s open practices firmly seventh in the pecking order among cornerbacks and entered the bye week a near-certainty to redshirt.
Now, he’s the Badgers’ most versatile player at the position. I believe Saturday marked the first time Wildgoose saw consistent snaps in the slot, something players and coaches mentioned he’d been working on during practice in recent weeks. As shown earlier, he made an impressive pass breakup on Blackshear while playing soft coverage from that spot, but he’s a guy that loves pressing up and getting his hands on the receiver, too.
Sometimes Wildgoose still gets a bit too hands-on, as he does here to prevent Blackshear from beating him (he was flagged for this).
Wildgoose continues to perform better than anyone could have anticipated, though. It’s also encouraging that the Badgers are developing another player outside of Madison Cone who can comfortably slide into the slot on a moment’s notice, although Hicks may ultimately prove capable in that role as well.
We must proceed with caution when evaluating anybody against this Rutgers offense, but these young cornerbacks were already showing promise before last week. The secondary could be a real strength for the Badgers in a couple years.
— UW’s outside linebackers appeared nearly mistake-free Saturday after committing some undisciplined errors in recent weeks. Watch Zack Baun on the following two plays.
You might be wondering why I told you to watch Baun on those plays when he didn’t appear to be too involved in either, but he did his job here by simply holding his ground.
Everything about that first play initially gives the impression that the action’s going away from Baun, but he stays at home. Even though he doesn’t make a tackle, the lead blocker must clear him out, freeing up other defenders to make the play.
In the second video, he makes certain the quarterback didn’t keep the ball on the read-option before bolting down the line towards the ball carrier. When an outside linebacker eases on that responsibility, you get a play like this:
This marked a rare mistake from the group Saturday, and Baun in particular has played quite well over the past two weeks. The Badgers’ defense could be tested in this regard more than it has all season this week at Penn State, which runs an offense built entirely around options and reads.
Here are a couple other notes after re-watching UW’s win over Rutgers:
— Not mentioned in the cornerback section above: The group needs to improve its tackling. Caesar Williams and Cone (twice) missed key tackles against Rutgers that led to extra yardage, and Wildgoose admits that’s still a weakness in his game as well.
— As reader, Twitter follower and Red Zone podcast listener John Hermansen (@johnhermansensf) first pointed out, David Pfaff did some nice things in the run game Saturday. It’ll be interesting to see if that leads to anything more, or if his snaps decrease again as Isaiahh Loudermilk returns to full health.