“We’re so similar in our whole attitude to begin with on football and the high motor, trying to make a play for our defense all the time,” Watt said. “I think we just set really hard edges and that’s been our identity this whole year, not being able to run outside the tackles much.”
The plan has worked to near perfection this season. Heading into the weekend, No.7 Wisconsin had the fifth best rush defense in the country (101.2 yards per game), which has translated to the No.3 scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and the No.11 total defense (302.8).
Those numbers are only going to get better, as the Badgers limited Illinois to 200 total yards, including just 99 yards on the ground, in a 48-3 statement victory over Illinois Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Our goal this week was to put together a complete game on defense, special team and offense, and I think we accomplished that pretty well,” Watt said after the Badgers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) lowered their points per game to 12.7. “Just getting out there and having fun with our guys, 1/11th has been our motto all season long and everyone did their job.”
Even with those accolades, Biegel and Watt won’t appear on many lists of best linebacker tandems in the country. While Watt is having a banner season in leading the team in tackles for loss (10.5), sacks (seven) and quarterback hurries (nine), Biegel’s season has been far quieter from a statistical standpoint.
Missing games at No.4 Michigan and No.2 Ohio State, Biegel ranked 14th on the defense in tackles (16) entering the weekend. Only two of those had been tackles for loss and one for a sack, which happened in the season opener. Against hapless Illinois (3-7, 2-5) he finished with four tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
Comparing Biegel’s previous two years as a starter through his first seven games and his numbers are down. During his first year as a full time starter in 2014, Biegel had 32 tackles (six for loss) and four sacks. Last year the sacks were the same, but he had 36 tackles and 7.5 sacks.
Those numbers came opposite fourth-round N.F.L. draft pick Joe Schobert, who saw his numbers decline as his senior season progress as he received more double teams and more attention, which in turned opened up more plays for Biegel. This season, Biegel flipped from the boundary linebacker to Schobert’s field linebacker spot to open up more plays for the defense.
Needless to say, it’s working.
“Week to week I’ll get quite a few double teams, they’ll slide protection to me a lot, but as a player and competitor, that’s what it’s all about,” Biegel said. “When I get double teams or more focus on myself, that’s providing opportunity for our defense to make plays. I’m not a big stats guy. I’m a football player, and I want our defense to play well. At the end of the day, the only stat line that means anything to me is the win column.”
That was evident in Wisconsin’s 21-7 victory over Northwestern a week ago. Biegel finished with only one tackle but it was the play he made on UW’s 19-yard line that saved the victory. On first down, Biegel blitzed off the left side of the UW formation and drew a holding call on tackle Eric Olson. With Northwestern in a first-and-20, Wisconsin was able to throw more pressures, which resulted in a third-down strip sack by Conor Sheehy.
“It’s not always going to show on the stat sheet, but in the film room it always shows,” Watt said of Biegel. “Our coaches say all the time, even though you’re not making the play, only 10 or so people know you made the play even if you didn’t make the tackle. He’s a huge impact and we know guys are game planning against him every week.”
Watt estimated the Michigan State game in week four was the first time a team really went away from Biegel’s side of the field. As a result, Watt tallied 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks – both career highs – as part of a six-tackle afternoon in UW’s 30-6 win. He also broke up a pass and recorded two quarterback hurries. He earned defensive player of the week honors and was named Walter Camp national FBS defensive player of the week.
Watt has played the last few weeks with a shoulder injury that causes some bouts of pain, but says there’s nothing structurally wrong with it and certainly won’t be missing any time. Not only is that good news for Watt is the short term, it speaks well to his long-term goal of joining his older brothers in the N.F.L.
While he’ll likely submit paperwork to the N.F.L. draft advisory board, Watt said thinking about next season won’t occur until after this one is completed.
“It honestly hasn’t crossed my mind much at all, and I’m not going to let it enter my mind until after the season,” Watt said. “There’s just too much at stake right now, and I really care about this team. I want to give everything I have to this team eight now. Each and every week is so important in order to accomplish what we want as a team. Everything else is on the back burner.”
The same could be said about the College Football Playoffs. Biegel acknowledges the Badgers are ranked seventh – “a huge honor,” he says – but something that doesn’t carry any weight until the final game has been played.
The intensity is only going to increase, as the Badgers have a chance to move up to No.6 in the rankings after No.2 Clemson and No.4 Washington both lost to unranked opponents at home and No.3 Michigan lost at Iowa.
“We’re going to go out there and play good Wisconsin football,” Biegel said. “That’s taking care of business every week.”