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Jack Sanborn - UW vs. Kent State

Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn tackles Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum in the first quarter of the Badgers' 48-0 win over the Golden Flashes on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. 

The University of Wisconsin's defense was so dominant in the Badgers' 48-0 victory over Kent State Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium that it began to cause dissension on the team.

Tight end Jake Ferguson said — jokingly, of course — that the UW offense, dog-tired after another of its lengthy touchdown drives, didn't even have time to rest because the defense kept forcing three-and-outs.

Cornerback Faion Hicks complained — again, jokingly — to outside linebacker Zack Baun that UW's pass rush, which sacked Kent State quarterbacks nine times, was stealing the action from the defensive backs because the receivers weren't even getting out of their breaks before the quarterback was being hit.

"That's good to hear for us," Baun said.

That's good to hear for everyone involved with the eighth-ranked Badgers. UW put on a defensive clinic against the Golden Flashes, whose closest sniff at a score came on 52-yard field goal attempt that hit the crossbar.

The best part about that? The Badgers have been putting on defensive clinics all season. Whether it's sacks, tackles for loss, takeaways, meager yardage totals or shutouts, the defense has had a five-game run for the ages under coordinator Jim Leonhard.

The shutout was UW's third, the first time that's happened in a Badgers season since 1937. UW had nine sacks Saturday, its most since at least 1995 and probably a lot longer than that. Those sacks gave UW 21 in five games, eclipsing the 19 they had in 13 games last season. Five opponents, including Michigan and Northwestern from the Big Ten Conference, have managed a grand total of three first-half points against UW.

"It's been fun to watch," coach Paul Chryst said. "Obviously, what they've done has been impressive. It's going to be more challenging as we continue to go and get back into conference play, but I like what Jimmy and the defensive staff have been doing, giving them the plan, and the guys are owning it."

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Saturday, Kent State had 124 yards on 45 plays. Baun had three sacks, inside linebackers Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn had two each and inside linebacker Leo Chenal had one. The ninth sack came when backup quarterback Woody Barrett dropped the ball while attempting to pass and Chenal recovered.

After awhile, it looked like a feeding frenzy whenever Kent State called a pass play.

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"It's huge to be able to put pressure on the quarterback," Chryst said. "They've been disruptive, but specifically (the sacks), it's huge. That was one thing, and not having to do it with the all-out pressures, either. It was a lot of different ways. I've enjoyed seeing different guys (get sacks). I think Zack Baun is playing at a real high level now, but you're seeing a lot of different guys show up and it's been good."

Coming off a rare down season for a defense that had been ranked among the top 10 nationally for the previous five seasons, the 2019 defense has a communal feeling that is hard to miss. The line, hit hard by injuries last season, has crushed opposing ground games. The linebackers have been fast and aggressive against the run and rushing the passer. The deep secondary has played consistently sticky coverage.

UW entered the game hitting the grand slam of defense. It ranked No. 1 nationally in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense. And its 11 takeaways put it near the top in that category, too.

"Everybody's hungry, everybody wants a piece," Orr said. "We talk about being a dominant defense and everybody wants a piece of that. Everybody wants a piece of the quarterback. Everybody wants a piece of a turnover. Everybody wants to make the play. I think that's the biggest difference. And nobody's going outside of themselves. Nobody's going outside of the scheme to do that. They're just making the plays when they present themselves."

Indeed, big plays are coming from all over. So far, nine players have sacks, seven have forced fumbles, five have interceptions and five have recovered fumbles.

The pass-rushers have had 14 sacks in the last two games, but the secret might be the run defense. It has stuffed opponents early and forced them into long down-and-distance situations. Kent State was 2-for-11 on third-down conversions, making UW's opponents 11-for-69 this season, a remarkably low 15.9 percent.

"We've been winning first and second down a lot, which is allowing us to get in that third-and-8-or-longer range, third-and-7-or-longer range," Orr said. "To get into that range, there's a pretty good chance that you can have some pressure, you can mix it up a little bit and they never know where we're coming from. That's the greatest part about our scheme. You never know who it's going to be. You can see that on the offensive lineman's face. You can see that when the quarterback doesn't know who to call out or who to slide to. It's definitely fun."

On a rainy day when the biggest question was who would leave the stadium sooner, the students or the adults, following "Jump Around," the UW defense dominated — again.

"It's been really fun to see, really fun to play in," Baun said. "We have great schemes, great players to execute them."

The remaining Big Ten schedule will test UW's defense, but so far it's the best in college football.

Bucky!

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Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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