MADISON – Since 1989 Paul Chryst has been on either a N.F.L. or college sideline, a tenure that dates back even further when his life as a coach’s son and college quarterback is taken into account.
“It’s going to be a big story line,” Chryst said. “It’ll have an impact.”
Aranda will be a central figure Saturday when No.5 LSU travels to Green Bay to take on Wisconsin at 2:30 p.m. It’s one of the highlight games of college football’s opening weekend due to the game being played at historic Lambeau Field and the fact there’s much at stake for both sides.
For the Tigers, LSU is trying to get back in the national title hunt after a three-game November losing streak crushed their chances a year ago. For the Badgers, the opener marks the first of five preseason top-15 opponents on UW’s schedule … all by Oct.22.
“It is a big game and there’s a lot at stake here,” senior tailback Dare Ogunbowale said. “It’s the first game of the season. It’s huge for Wisconsin, given the chance to play at Lambeau and playing against a big team like LSU. That’s big for us as well.”
While the hiring of Gary Andersen as head coach in December 2012 is viewed in hindsight as a misstep, there’s no mistaking that Andersen’s decision to bring Aranda with him from Utah State was a huge home run. Traditionally a 4-3 based school, Aranda switched Wisconsin to a 3-4 base and created a defense around the fact that a number of players – mainly defensive linemen – were playing outside their more natural positions. The results spoke for themselves, finishing the season sixth in scoring defense at 16.3 points per game.
By the end of his third year, Wisconsin had the No.1 scoring defense in the nation at 13.7 points, 1.4 better than SEC West rival and national champion Alabama.
Naturally players become close with their position coaches and coordinators over the course of a career. And while senior linebacker Vince Biegel arrived in Madison a year before Aranda did, Biegel’s entire career on the field overlaps with Aranda’s time in Madison, a time frame that turned Biegel into one of the best senior outside linebackers in the country.
“When we’re game planning for an opponent, I like to be right in his ear. I want to make sure I am part of the game plan,” Biegel said. “Coach Aranda and I had a tremendous relationship with him. It was definitely tough to see him leave. I don’t have any hard feelings or resentment. I understand he has to make the best decision for himself.”
The one thing for certain is both units will be different than they were a season ago, but to which degree is unknown. LSU struggled defensively in the rugged SEC a year ago, finishing 10th in the conference allowing 24.3 points per game. It’s part of the reason why Aranda was given a seven-figured contract.
While the defense is not going to change from a scheme standpoint, Wisconsin’s unit was going to be altered no matter who the coordinator was with the need to replace three secondary players and the Big Ten linebacker of the year.
Arriving prior to spring football, new UW coordinator Justin Wilcox said his prime goal was identifying the strengths of the players, which in turn would allow him to create a defense that was exude every ounce of talent from them.
“Coach Wilcox is really good at putting his players in the positions that they are comfortable in, and that was the same way Coach Aranda was,” Biegel said. “They’ve kept the defense pretty much the same, with Coach Wilcox adding his flavor.”
The test for Wilcox and Co will be felt right away. Not only does LSU boast a big offensive line, athletic receiver and talented quarterbacks, the main task will be slowing junior All-American tailback Leonard Fournette, who set a school single-season rushing record with 1,953 yards to go along with 22 rushing touchdowns.
Making his debut against Wisconsin two years ago, Fournette is 13 yards shy of reaching 3,000 for his career and is one of this season’s early Heisman Trophy favorites.
“He is a really talented football player, and I think for good reason,” Chryst said. “He’s talked about being one of the best in the country. It’s always important when you play against a good player to do all you can to contain to minimize him. He’s going to make plays. What makes him good is he’s extremely talented (and) has good players around him.”
There’s no question there’s always a danger of overthinking the opener, even more so now considering Aranda’s background. Not only does the former defensive coordinator know a good deal of about Wisconsin’s personnel and schemes, the Badgers say they know a lot about his tendencies, too.
It’s definitely a worry, according to Biegel, which makes the role of upperclassmen to steady the waters as much as possible all that more critical.
“There’s plenty of story lines going into this game, playing at Lambeau Field, College GameDay, Dave Aranda leading LSU against Wisconsin,” Biegel said. “The story lines are endless, but at the end of the day, the product we want to put on the field does not stop and the standard we have on Wisconsin football as high. We want to go out there, perform and do what we always do, and that’s play hard-nosed Wisconsin Badger football and hard-nosed Wisconsin Badger defense, which we plan on doing.”
And while Aranda will be calling the game from the sidelines, Ogunbowale said the former defensive coordinator won’t be as big of a factor as he’s being made out to be.
“Aranda is a smart guy and even if he didn’t coach at Wisconsin, he’d be able to find out the things we like to do, so I’m not worried about Aranda as much,” Ogunbowale said. “He wasn’t the guy out there making the plays, making the interceptions, making the sacks. Those guys were here. He’s a very good football mind but it really doesn’t matter. We just have to go out and execute.”