Going Aggressive

After years of having a 'bend but don't break' attitude on defense, Wisconsin's new co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge are making sure the Badgers' defense stays aggressive, and doesn't accept bending as an option.

MADISON – With a school known for a power running game behind a power offensive line, the Badgers' defense can almost be considered at afterthought. Satisfied to let their offense control the clock and wear down the opposition, Wisconsin's defense, while stellar in past seasons, took a ‘bend but don't break' mentality, meaning that it was OK to give up the occasional big play as long as the defense could recover to keep points off the board.

Consider that old philosophy bent and broken. Promoted to co-defensive coordinators after Dave Doeren left to take the head coaching job at Northern Illinois, Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge have instilled a new aggressive mentality into Wisconsin's 11-man unit, choosing to be the attackers instead of the ones being attacked.

"I think the times we got caught in the past was a ‘bend but don't break' defense, and that's not what we want to do," sophomore linebacker Chris Borland said. "We want to get after it from every aspect. Everything is going to be aggressive taking it to the offense."

That new regime was a clear indicator in Wisconsin's annual spring game in April. Usually a game watered down with defensive blitzes and schemes to allow the offense to get some work in, Ash and Partridge ratcheted up the volume on the offense. The result, a 3-0 stalemate that showed Wisconsin's defense isn't going to take it easy on anyone, even themselves.

"We're going to be aggressive in the way that we play," Ash said. "The call doesn't make the play aggressive. The player makes the call aggressive. When that whistle snaps, we want 11 guys playing as hard, as tough, as fast as they can getting their hats to the ball. Whether we call a blitz or not, it doesn't matter. We may or may not call more blitzes, it depends what we need to do to win the game, but we're going to play our (butts) off."

That's not to say Wisconsin's defense didn't do that under Doeren, as Wisconsin posted a 49-15 overall record, qualified for five bowl games and had defenses have consistently been ranked in the national top 25 in NCAA defensive categories under Doeren.

The 2010 Wisconsin defense ranked 22nd in the country in total defense and is in the Top 30 in both rushing and scoring defense. The year prior, Wisconsin led the Big Ten and ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 88.2 yards per game to record the second-best rush defense in school history. The Badgers held each of their last 10 opponents in 2009 to less than 100 yards rushing, the longest streak in school history.

The thing is now, Ash and Partridge have seen the standard the players have set and with 11 players returning with starting experience, the expectations are understandably more demanding.

"It's great expectations, because a lot more is expected," junior cornerback Marcus Cromartie said. "We know what the expectations are, so we have to practice hard so we can reach them."

One could break into a sweat just watching Ash and Partridge work with their defense. From aggressive individual drills to physical play when the team is in full pads, the results are simple: no foolish mistakes, no big plays and stop the ball carrier.

The schemes, according to the players, are mostly the same, but the wrinkles are starting to be displayed with the defense doing some slight alterations to the base defense and throwing an eight-man box at a Wisconsin offensive line hasn't typically seen on the practice field.

"It's a different type of defense we've seen in different teams, but not from ours," sophomore left guard Travis Frederick said. "Practicing against this defense is making us better, but they are very secretive in their looks."

When asked about Wisconsin's new aggressive defense, head coach Bret Bielema coyly said that the players take on the philosophy and personality of their position coach, going on to say that ‘Ash is an angry man.' Angry? No. Demanding? Absolutely.

"He's definitely a critique guy, critiquing every single guy's every single step, and that's what you need if you want to be a great defense," Cromartie said. "He's not going to accept mediocrity."

That drive for three-and-out is a unified one in the defensive meeting rooms, a sign of two old friends working together. Having played and coached together at Drake University and later at Iowa State, Ash, a skilled defensive back in college, and Partridge, an All-American and team captain at nose tackle, are believers in the same philosophy and have the same ideals as their old college teammate Doeren, making it an easy working relationship and an easier way to relay their expectations to their players.

That's going to make it even easier on game day when Ash will sit above the press box and rely on Partridge, linebackers coach Dave Huxtable (a former college defensive coordinator), safeties coach DeMontie Cross (a former NFL coach) and his fellow defensive coaches to be his eyes on the field.

"It's been pretty smooth because they do a great job of being on the same page," Borland said. "I can understand how people would think it would be tough if there were conflicting demands. They are on the same page with everything – on the same page, talking the same language and going in the same direction."

In one of his first meetings said getting promoted by Bielema, Ash and Partridge made sure the players knew that the ‘bend but don't break' mentality was a thing of the past, a defense's philosophy that cost Wisconsin one too many yards in last January's Rose Bowl. This year, the objectives are twofold.

Win first, shut them down second.

"If we play well enough to win the game, that's the most important thing, but we want to hold our opponents to a certain number of points," Ash said. "We're going to do that by playing aggressive and we've got to be in the right spots. It's not good enough to let them down into the red zone and hold them to a field goal.

"Every time the ball is snapped, we want to have the mindset that it's our ball, an opportunity to get the ball back and an opportunity to score. That's the mindset and how we talk to the guys and how we coach."

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