In the week leading up to last Saturday's game with Nebraska, critics pointed to the Badgers' soft schedule that had allowed the offense to average 48.5 points and more than 240 yards both passing and receiving.
Although Badgers defensive players were asked about how they planned to stop the Cornhuskers' dominant rushing attack, they were pretty much an afterthought.
"I think the perception of our entire team was we hadn't played anybody yet and people were critical of the defense that we hadn't stopped anybody yet," senior defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "They said the offenses we were going against were inferior to Nebraska. We just try to do the same things we did the previous games."
Holding Nebraska to a season-low in points (17) and yards (335) fit right in with Wisconsin's performances in nonconference matchups. The Badgers are the only team in the country to shut out a BCS team this season, 35-0 against Oregon State. They limited Northern Illinois to just seven points and 237 yards, and the Huskies are averaging 47 points and more than 500 yards in their other four games. Against South Dakota, Wisconsin allowed only 173 total yards.
Through five games and with a victory over a top 10 opponent on its resume, Wisconsin's defense is second in the nation in points allowed (10.2), eighth in passing yards allowed (161 per game) and 10th in total defense (264.4).
"I think each week, we definitely have gotten better … and the goal is perfection," senior safety Aaron Henry said this week. "I don't think we have reached the pinnacle of perfection yet, but we are steady on the uprise."
The biggest improvement has been the pass rush from Wisconsin's defensive tackles. After recording only one sack and one tackle for loss in the first three games, the Badgers' four-man interior rotation racked up three sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss the past two weeks.
Against Nebraska, the entire defensive line had 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, two sacks, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.
"It was an unselfish game plan, and we've made quite a bit of sacks last year, so I've been pleased with our pass rush as the season progresses," Butrym said. "The thing that was the most encouraging from Saturday is they just took the ball down on us their first two drives and scored just three points after that. That showed the most poise and leadership."
Wisconsin's defense has been on the field for 56 possessions this season, and the opposing offense has failed to get a first down on 23 of them (41.0 percent). Plus, the defense had one memorable stop against the Cornhuskers, even if the game was a blowout.
With the outcome decided, Nebraska was at the Wisconsin 1 on second-and goal with 30 seconds left. Nebraska, looking to make the final score more respectable, called a quarterback draw for Taylor Martinez. Wisconsin's defensive line broke through, and Martinez was stopped for no gain. Nebraska decided to not call its final timeout, and the Badgers reached a goal.
"That meant a lot," Butrym said. "Our goal is 17 points or less, and that's exactly what we got against an offense averaging 40 points per game. That was extremely pleasing, a big stand and shows the character of our defense."
While the defensive line has brought pressure, the linebackers, primarily junior Mike Taylor and sophomore Chris Borland, have provided stability and energy. Borland has nicely adjusted to the middle linebacker position after playing his 2009 freshman season outside, and Taylor is coming off what coach Bret Bielema called the best game of his career. Taylor, who had 14 tackles against Nebraska, and Borland rank 1-2 on the team in stops.
"Those guys are tremendous for us," Henry said. "Going back to their freshman year, Borland and Taylor were ridiculous. You kind of knew what caliber and what ability those guys have. Once they started to get comfortable and make a couple plays, the defense is huge with those guys in the middle."
Even the secondary has been a pleasant surprise despite the amount of adversity the group has dealt with. Down two starters from the opening day roster, including senior cornerback Devin Smith (foot), the defensive backs swung the momentum against the Huskers when interceptions by senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus and Henry led to 14 points.
"Our preparation during camp did a really good job because we had guys nicked up and the coaches were prepared," Henry said. "Coach B has done a good job of preaching ‘next guy in' around here, and guys are fully taking advantage of those opportunities. Everybody practices and works like they are going to play on Saturday, so there's no panic when something does happen."
Through five games, not much has happened for offenses playing against Wisconsin.
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