In 35 years of covering college football and appreciating premium defensive play, I can’t recall a more “interesting” No. 1-ranked defense than Wisconsin’s.
There’s no other way to put it because this group fits none of the normal profiles of a defense that leads the nation in fewest yards allowed per game (251.1) entering Saturday’s Big Ten West Division showdown with Nebraska.
A top-ranked defense often will have a first-team All-America tackle or rush end. Just as probable is another first- or second-teamer at cornerback or free safety. Sometimes, a linebacker will be in the honors mix, too.
At Wisconsin, the defenders may scramble to make first-team All-Big Ten — not because some aren’t deserving, but because the individual statistics don’t favor them.
Not a single Badger is ranked in the top 100 nationally in tackles per game. I had to look at that twice to believe it myself.
The leading tackler, junior safety Michael Caputo, is tied for 16th in the Big Ten at 7.1 stops per game. Only two others, linebackers Derek Landisch (tied for 36th) and Joe Schobert (tied for 45th), are in the top 50 in the conference.
So how does this work?
“Apart from the really intelligent game scheme the coaches come up with,” Caputo said, “just be the toughest guys on the field and execute. It’s that simple.
“We feed off each other. It’s a good feeling. It’s why I play football. This is the best.”
Opposing coaches have referred to Wisconsin as “an 11-man defense,” meaning they don’t know exactly what’s coming from where. That descriptor drew a smile from Badgers safeties coach Bill Busch.
“Our guys have really invested in what we’re trying to do,” the former Nebraska assistant said. “We play a lot of people. We’re using 18 or 19 guys every game.
“We try to find a role for everybody against certain teams. We’ve had guys play 50 snaps one game and the next game play four. They are selfless. There is no, ‘What about me?’ That’s a big plus.”
When you walk among the Wisconsin players after a game, you don’t see the freakish body types you might expect from a No. 1 defense.
I’ve interviewed freak-body defenders: Oklahoma’s Brian Bosworth, Nebraska’s Neil Smith and Ndamukong Suh, Oklahoma State’s Leslie O’Neal, Colorado’s Kanavis McGhee and Alfred Williams, Texas A&M’s Von Miller and Missouri’s Aldon Smith among others. In comparison, the Wisconsin guys look like commoners.
The results, though, are uncommon, especially with eight new starters this season, including the entire front seven.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Caputo, a 6-foot-1, 212-pound junior from Imperial, Pennsylvania. “We knew if we hunkered down it would come to this.”
Wisconsin lines up defensively with three down linemen and four linebackers. The Badgers don’t blitz a lot and don’t play a lot of tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
What coordinator Dave Aranda favors is lining up differently up front almost every play, and making it difficult to know where the fourth and sometimes fifth or sixth penetrator comes from.
“They do a great job of breaking you down,” said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, a former two-time national defensive player of the year. “If you’re right-handed, they try to make you play left-handed.”
That difficult-to-decipher front has Wisconsin tied for 16th in sacks and tied for 31st in tackles for loss. The alignment also has limited big plays. The Badgers lead the nation in fewest plays of 10 yards or more allowed with 73. Clemson is second at 85.
“What really jumped out,” Fitzgerald said, “is they always seemed to ‘fit’ plays right, and they tackled incredibly well. They play great team defense. I don’t think it’s about stars. Defense is about understanding and knowing where your help is at.”
The past three games, Wisconsin has taken defense to a higher level statistically. The Badgers held Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue to an average of 181.3 yards and 7.7 points.
But some asterisks must be attached to Wisconsin’s gaudy numbers.
The quarterbacks at Maryland and Rutgers were injured in the game before Wisconsin. Also, Purdue played without leading receiver Danny Anthrop, lost for the season the week before to a knee injury against Nebraska.
Some critics might question all of Wisconsin’s work. The Badgers have faced only two FBS offenses ranked in the nation’s top 70 (Bowling Green 40th and LSU 70th). The others: 90th, 93rd, 107th, 110th, 117th and 122nd.
Nebraska is 18th in total offense.
“Nebraska is freakishly talented,” Busch said. “We’ve seen them a lot on crossover film while preparing for other teams.”
Wisconsin isn’t so freakishly talented. But since a 20-14 loss at Northwestern on Oct. 4, the Badgers have found a winning blend of skill, scheme and togetherness.
“We have a very connected locker room, across the board — offense, defense, special teams,” Busch said. “Whatever we’re doing, we’re all involved.
“Sometimes that’s not enough. People can have great locker rooms and not get it done. But you never win without it.”
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