Yes, the Badgers had a lot of seniors returning on their defense, but were was transitioning to a new scheme with new coaches, were moving and shifting players to new, foreign positions and had some important leaders – like Ethan Armstrong and Beau Allen – on the sidelines because of offseason surgeries.
"We came through spring and so many of these young men were coming off surgeries or coming off injuries and couldn't compete in spring ball," said Andersen. "I don't think we quite understood how good they would be until they fit into the scheme."
The answer is evident with the regular season almost complete that the Badgers' veterans have fit in pretty darn well.
No.16 Wisconsin – on the heels of another dominant defensive effort – made it 10 straight over Minnesota with a 20-7 victory in chilly, windswept TCF Bank Stadium Saturday afternoon.
The Badgers (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) won't be able to win a Big Ten championship for a fourth straight year – that honor will go to either Michigan State or Ohio State – but members of Wisconsin's defense, who regularly rotate nine seniors on to the field, aren't sulking after having a big hand in pushing its winning streak to six games for the first time in over two years.
"Going into the season, we just wanted to finish every game," said sixth-year senior Brendan Kelly, a native of Eden Prairie, MN. "Finish the season stronger. That's something we're definitely proving.
"We all saw the potential with so many seniors, so many mature guys that have played together. There's a great camaraderie on the defense. We all know how to play with each other and we all enjoy doing it."
Wisconsin's defense enhanced its stock as one of the best units in the country by holding its sixth opponent without a touchdown. Since allowing a late touchdown against Illinois on Oct.19, Wisconsin hasn't allowed a conference team into the end zone, a span of 180:44.
"I think it's a combination of a lot of different things," said senior nose tackle Beau Allen, a native of Minnetonka, MN. "We have a lot of experience up front, we rotate a lot of guys in and out … It feels good. At the end of the day all the matters is we got the victory."
Not only did Wisconsin limit Minnesota (8-3, 4-3) to 185 total yards and six three-and-outs on 11 drives, excluding the end of the first half, the Badgers forced at least three turnovers for the first time in 2013.
Senior linebacker Chris Borland was involved in two of them, tripping up quarterback Phillip Nelson to allow Kelly to force a fumble, which Borland recovered. Borland also stripped Nelson and recovered his own caused fumble in the third quarter, giving him a conference-tying 14th forced fumble in his career.
"We were pleased to finally get to that mark," said Borland, who registered his first two turnovers of the year. "Personally it felt good to get my hands on the ball more. It hasn't happened a lot this year."
While the seniors have been important for building a foundation, Andersen listed a handful of surprising role players that have been vital to fortifying the defense. Players like Tanner McEvoy, a former junior college quarterback who started at quarterback, moved to receiver and finally to safety to add a 6-6 frame in the secondary. He had three pass breakups.
Sophomore Darius Hillary, a former nickel cornerback, was moved to the start cornerback spot and was part of the reason, along with true freshman Sojourn Shelton, limiting Nelson to 7-for-23 for 83 yards.
Nate Hammon had hardly played any defense for Wisconsin in past years, but has steadily progressed and forced his first career fumble, on the first play of the second quarter.
"There are a lot of kids playing in the back end, and that was the challenge to put it together," said Andersen. "That's a credit to the kids."
Wisconsin's high-powered offense was held to a season-low 324 yards, but grinded out enough yards to make it work. Senior James White rushed for 125 yards on 26 carries, his eighth 100-yard rushing game of the season and fourth straight, doing so despite Minnesota putting upwards of 10 people in the box.
His 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the 48th of his career, and proved to be the difference.
"It was a great challenge for us, but we were willing to accept the challenge," said White.
White had more total yards (106) than Minnesota had first-half yards (94), but Wisconsin only led 13-7 at halftime because the offense kept getting in its own way. A week after Wisconsin had to settle for three field goals of 36 yards or less, Wisconsin had to settle for two red-zone field goals that bookended its first half.
And both were equally frustrated. White broke three tackles for a 49-yard gain on Wisconsin's first offensive play, but the Badgers lost a yard on their next three plays.
Starting on the Minnesota 43 with 1:35 left, White's 18-yard run on the first play of the drive got Wisconsin to the 18, but quarterback Joel Stave went 2-for-7 from that point forward and missed on two opportunities for touchdowns to wide-open receivers.
Wisconsin also missed an opportunity for a home-run pass, as Jared Abbrederis dropped a wide-open pass that the Minnesota 10 that would have gone for a touchdown .The duo made up for it with a 12-play, 82-yard drive to start the second half that deflated the home team.
"That's something we talked about at halftime, that we needed to come out and get a good drive right away and put some points on the board to try and take away all the momentum they might have had coming out at halftime," said Abbrederis, who caught the two-yard touchdown to end a drive that chewed up 7:05. "That was huge for us to get a drive and actually get a touchdown after it."
The only offense the Gophers generated was because of its defense, as pressure generated by Michael Amaefula forced a poor pass by Stave that was intercepted by Aaron Hill and returned for a 39-yard touchdown.
That score early in the second quarter gave Minnesota a 7-3 lead, the first time Minnesota led in this series in 216 minutes, 4 seconds dating to the third quarter of UW's 31-28 in 2009.
But after 10:15, Wisconsin took it back for good, along with the axe to Madison.
"We've got one game left, they're 9-2 and they're playing for a ton," said Andersen. "They're going to get us to a nice bowl game."