EVANSTON, Ill. - If one were to walk past Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert on the street, they would likely be mistaken for a washed out ‘80s cover band than two talented outside linebackers on Wisconsin’s defense.
Schobert’s entire head is a mop of matted madness while Biegel’s mullet has been growing rapid and out of control for almost a year. He does maintain some grooming, having a buddy shave the motion W and other caricatures into the side of his physique, but he maintains that he’s still all business in the front and party in the back.
The hair idea was designed with the intention of having their hair cut at the end of the season by patients from the children’s hospital, but also has created a sense of camaraderie between a group of linebackers wanting to literally let their hair down and have some fun.
“We’re a fun group,” said Biegel. “Not just myself and Schobert but Derek Landisch, Marcus Trotter and all the guys this year have really come together as a unit. I love those guys. We’ve become best friends on and off the field. I get to have fun with them this year and I’m going to battle my (butt) off for them.”
Entering Wisconsin’s Big Ten conference opener against Northwestern this afternoon here at Ryan Field, the Badgers (3-1) have put up impressive numbers in a small sample size. Leading the Big Ten in both scoring defense (14.5 points per game) and total defense (260.8 yards per game), Wisconsin is one of just four schools to rank among the nation’s top 20 in all four major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense), joining Baylor, Louisville and TCU.
And the Badgers have done it with an entirely new front seven and no stout, experienced linebackers like Ethan Armstrong, Chris Borland, Brendan Kelly and a cast of others they had at their disposal last year.
“We’ve had key guys leave, but we had a lot of experienced guys come back,” said Biegel. “I knew defensively we would be all right up front. We are where we thought we would be.”
Biegel was confident by the way defensive coordinator Dave Aranda structured packages on the defense. While Borland hardly left the field, Wisconsin relied on Biegel, Landisch, Schobert and others on passing or high-stressed downs, bringing those players in for their speed and abilities.
So when people saw that Wisconsin graduated all seven starters from the defensive front prior to the season, Biegel knew the numbers were misleading.
“Last year I was a situational player, a third-down pass rusher, along with Joe,” said Biegel. “This year with me and Joe being starters, our roles are increased, but we still expect big plays for ourselves. I think we expect big players from each other and we’ll make big plays this season.”
Landisch leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss at 1.5 per game and ranks in a tie for fifth in the league in sacks with three on the season. Schobert’s close behind with five tackles for loss while Biegel has filled the stat sheet with sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
Last weekend, thanks to Biegel’s fumble recovery and the overall effectiveness of the defense, South Florida only ran 13 plays in the second half.
“We expect to play great defense, but to be in the position that we're in and the bottom line is points,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “And (14.3) points a game is what they're giving up, which is great to see. I would never say I'm overly surprised. But I'm happy with where they sit at this point. If they can sustain that and maintain that for 12 regular season games, they will be a special defense. So time will tell, but I like where they are.
Part of that impressiveness comes from what Wisconsin doesn’t have on the field. Not only are the Badgers without Borland, senior Warren Herring – one of the unquestioned vocal and physical leaders of the Badgers’ defense – has out for the past three games, for this afternoon’s game and likely next week’s home game against Illinois as he continues to rehab a knee injury suffered in the third quarter of the season opener. Even without him on the field, UW is giving up an average of only 10.0 points per game.
“Warren is a huge part of this defense as a physical leader, an emotional leader and a guy we rely on to make big plays,” said Biegel. “I was confident with the depth we had on the line.”
Biegel’s premonitions have been proven correct. Over the last three weeks, sophomore Arthur Goldberg has developed into a run-stopping threat at nose tackle and Chikwe Obasih as a disruptive pass rusher at the end, adding another layer of physicality that offenses have to scheme for.
A year ago, Goldberg was watching from the sidelines behind Herring and Beau Allen and Obasih was redshirting, focusing on getting stronger in the weight room.
“The biggest surprise for me is Chikwe; how he approaches the game and comes in consistently every single weekend,” said Biegel. “He’s a guy we can rely on. Arthur stepping up as a starter on base defense also gets me excited to see him grow as a football player.”
Over the last three weeks of the season, Biegel has seen the young defense mold and develop strategies against up-tempo offenses, pro-style offenses and spread offenses, coming away successful each time. But in order for him to clearly understand how good this defense will be, Biegel needs to see it tested, which is what he’ll get over the next eight conference game, starting with Northwestern.
“I think Big Ten season speaks for itself, but the freshmen need to understand the importance that every single game counts,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing a smaller school or a bigger school, every game counts in the standings. You have to approach every Big Ten game the same.”