MADISON – The numbers validate the effort being put forth by the Wisconsin defense over the last two months, arguably the finest unit defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has compiled in his three seasons with the program.
Since a disheartening 35-17 loss to Alabama in the season opener, Wisconsin has allowed an average of 7.7 points over seven games. Giving up only six touchdowns over that stretch, including keeping three straight opponents out of the end zone in September, Wisconsin ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring defense at 11.1 points per game.
Not only has the unit been stingy at the goal line, the Badgers have allowed a total of 23 opponent plays to be run on its side of the 50-yard line in the second half of its four Big Ten games (5.8 plays per game).
“There’s things to work on and improve every week, so we can definitely get better, but I’ve been happy with how we’ve been playing,” said senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert. “We’ve been playing aggressive and fast. Coach Aranda tries to put us in situations to take advantage of our skill sets and get favorable matchups. It’s shown up so far this year.”
For the second week in a row, UW’s defense will be put to the test against an offense with passing firepower.
Visiting Camp Randall for the first time tomorrow morning, Rutgers (3-4, 1-3 Big Ten) ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in total offense, scoring offense, passing and rushing, not to mention has a quarterback – redshirt sophomore Chris Laviano – who is the third most efficient passer in the conference.
And while every offense is different, there are pieces to the Scarlet Knights that will look familiar to Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1) in the Badgers’ first Big Ten crossover game of the season.
With the amount of play-action, crosses over the middle and mix-matching routes, Rutgers is similar in concept to the Crimson Tide, an offense that threw for 264 yards in that season-opening loss. But the Scarlet Knights attack teams out of a pro-style scheme with shifts and motions, much like the one the Badgers are employing under head coach Paul Chryst.
“You watch them on the film, it’s almost like we are preparing for ourselves,” said secondary coach Daronte Jones. “They use compressed formations to get space off the line of scrimmage to try to get their guys in great position to make plays.”
There’s no question that the go-to guy is senior receiver Leonte Carroo, who is questionable as he deals with a tender ankle for the second straight week. Despite being limited with injuries and suspensions, he has caught 24 passes for 527 yards and nine touchdowns in a total of 15 quarters this season.
The success of Rutgers starts with the run, establishing the ground game to bait teams into loading up the box. From there, Laviano will use play-action passes to hit underneath completions and lure the defensive backs to cheat up to the line of scrimmage. When that happens, Rutgers calls routes for Carroo to take advantage of the open space deep down the field.
Considering Carroo ranks fourth nationally in yards per catch (21.96) among players who have at least 20 receptions, the senior warrants more attention than single coverage with a cornerback.
“He’s a man that deserves attention,” said Jones. “You definitely have to be aware of where he is on the field at all times.”
Awareness is the key for Wisconsin’s linebackers to force Rutgers to play catch up. With quick drops and releases, Rutgers has given up 12 sacks on the season. A week ago UW failed to register a sack against Illinois (league best eight sacks allowed through seven games) because the Illini wasted no time in getting the ball to their playmakers.
With a Wisconsin defense full of speed and quickness on all three levels, a hit on the passer Saturday can be just as good as a tackle for loss.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are athletic out here,” said Schobert. “Most of our guys have been lucky to avoid injuries. That’s translated to be faster overall. Even if you can’t get there to get a sack, hitting them a step after he throws it lets him know that you are there and can get into his head. Especially if it’s a three-step drop and you’re getting pressure on him and hitting him, that will make him question where his blocking is. That’s where our speed comes into play.”