The 3-4 defense, a novelty throughout the country, is particularly peculiar to a Big Ten team. The conference, which still prides itself on power football (if with a twist in its present guise) is not one within which many teams have chosen to play with a three-man front over the years.
The Badgers will face a 3-4 team Saturday when they take on UNLV at 11:00 a.m. Wisconsin has some experience against three-man fronts from its recent episodes against West Virginia's "33 stack", but there are significant differences between the Mountaineers and UNLV defensively.
"Can't be too many times," Wisconsin quarterbacks coach Jeff Horton said, when asked how often he has seen the 3-4 in his tenure with the Badgers. "Especially the way UNLV plays it. They are a little different than what West Virginia runs. (The Mountaineers) are more of a 3-3 with some stacks and five DBs. These guys are more 3-4, four DBs, so it is whole different set of problems."
There are similarities as well. Just as the Mountaineers tended to roll their two strong safeties near the line to create a "35" look, UNLV will often place star strong safety Jamaal Brimmer "in the box", allowing him to blitz off the edge and play, at times, like a fifth linebacker. And like West Virginia, UNLV will try to create confusion with a variety of pressure packages and constant movement among its front seven.
The Rebels, though, are new converts to the 3-4, a transition of convenience for a team loaded with linebackers. UNLV's adoption of the 3-4 creates an unfamiliar situation for both the Rebels and its opponents.
"They are totally different from a year ago so we have their first two games (to look at)," Horton said. "The thing you don't see them against is teams that run what we call ‘21' which is two backs, one tight end. No one has run that against them yet this year so you really don't know how they are going to deploy on that. So it is going to be a chess match a little bit Saturday along those lines."
This would appear to give the Rebels an element-of-surprise advantage. They know what Wisconsin runs offensively, but the Badgers can only surmise how UNLV's new defense is going to matchup with Wisconsin's various formations. The Rebels, though, will surely have to make adjustments of their own against Wisconsin's varied offensive formations.
One thing is for certain, though. UNLV will bring pressure on almost every play. The Rebels defense, predicated on the play of Brimmer and linebackers Reggie Butler, Ryan Claridge, Adam Seward and John Andrews, employs a zone-blitz style, often sending five or six players on the rush, but typically playing zone defense behind the blitz.
"They are a big blitz team," Horton said. "They never line up in the same place twice and they are constantly moving up until the snap of the ball. So that is really going to test your patience on the offensive side to not panic or get out of sync or try to get going too fast. You just have to try to see where they are at at the end and move and go get them."
Wisconsin has not faced the 3-4 often, but this is the third consecutive blitz-happy team the Badgers will face. In the first two contests, the Badgers offensive line has been able to pick up the blitz and quarterback Jim Sorgi has looked comfortable making reads against a variety of pressure packages. The results so far: 533 rushing yards, 496 passing yards, only three sacks allowed and two wins.
"Obviously there are going to be some new wrinkles that they haven't shown and we have to make those adjustments on the sidelines," Horton said. "Jim has prepared each and every week diligently and he has done a good job with that."