Wisconsin's defense has improved by leaps and bounds since the Big Ten season began. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the running game—in three games, the Badgers have allowed 59.3 yards per game on the ground. Last week, Wisconsin held the Buckeyes to 69 rushing yards on 26 carries.
Defensive tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson were at the center of the action, winning the battles with Ohio State's interior linemen and raising havoc in the Buckeyes' backfield. Hawthorne finished with four tackles and two sacks, Jefferson five tackles, and an assisted tackle for loss. It was the kind of success the duo knew it could accomplish.
"They were a bunch of ‘oozers,'" Hawthorne said of Ohio State's offensive line. "Like, most of their initial blocks were kind of like with one punch and then they will keep going. During the game Jason was like, ‘fake him this side and go outside, you'll beat him all day.' Whenever I was head up on the guard I tried to fake him inside and go out. When I was in the gaps I was just trying to shoot the gaps as hard as I can. It turned out pretty good."
"It was just a feeling that I had," Jefferson said. "They were kind of bigger, stronger so I figured we might want to use our quickness to try to get around them. We had been watching film and we kind of saw that they really couldn't handle movement and we just wanted to play fast.
"I mean because they are big guys and what they want to do is they want to get into you. And our whole thing is to not let them get into you."
Wisconsin defensive line coach John Palermo gave Jefferson and Hawthorne the freedom to decide how to beat Ohio State's line. The Badgers put in a series of stunts specifically for last week's game and then Palermo let his tackle tandem take control.
"I think that is what we try to do in practice from a confidence standpoint," Palermo said. "I mean you can only prepare a kid so much and then they are the ones that have to play the game. We did some different things in practice like we put in a double tilt and some twisting and some ‘ole-ing'. I told them, it's up to you guys, whatever you want to do—you can tilt it, ole it, gap it, depending on how you can beat them."
Prior to the season, there was no secret that the Badgers had a wealth of talent along the defensive front. Wisconsin, though, was plagued with inconsistency last season. This year, Hawthorne and Jefferson, along with ends Jonathan Welsh and Darius Jones, are leading a much improved unit.
The change is most apparent in Hawthorne, who has been a dominant presence in three Big Ten games. His play has come so far that some NFL draft prognosticates are calling him a potential first round pick, though there is no indication he will leave school early.
"I just think I'm (more) fundamentally sound than I was a year ago," Hawthorne said. "I think I'm a lot stronger, a lot faster than I was last year. I understand the defense a lot more."
"It is obvious that he has played very well the last three weeks," Palermo said. "I don't know if he has ever had a stretch where he has played that well three weeks in a row. But in order for us to be a good defense he needs to play like that every week."
Palermo, though, believes that Hawthorne's performance in last season's Alamo Bowl was his best game.
"I just thought he was a lot more physical in the Colorado game," Palermo said. "And I think at the time Colorado was a little better offensively than Ohio State is."
Palermo also feels that Hawthorne can reach that pinnacle performance consistently, but said, "that's up to him. He's got the ability but he is the one that has to crank it up and play."
Wisconsin will certainly need that improved play this week against Purdue.
"I think Purdue has a very good offensive line," Palermo said. "When they make contact on somebody they strain to beat them rather than just kind of getting in the way—they really try to dominate you and beat you."
Playing their roles
"Our role—me and Jason—is to make the ball bounce to the outside," Hawthorne said. "Coach Palermo is telling us that our mentality needs to be that nobody runs the ball between the tackles on us. That is what we have been trying to live up to all this time.
"The second one would have to be when Jonathan and Darius come off the sides, you know, push the quarterback up so they can get the sack."
"We are both big bodies," Jefferson said. "We are pretty much in there just clogging things up. I'm kind of more of a reader and he is kind of more aggressive—he just kind of goes."
The tandem's tactical differences are a matter of preference, not game planning.
"It is just our personalities," Jefferson said. "I'm more of just kind of calculating things out; he just goes."
The Ohio State game was just one example of how Jefferson and Hawthorne compliment each other, along with ends Welsh and Jones.
"We both work hard," Hawthorne said. "We both know the game a lot. Really we try to feed off each other's energy. Somebody makes a big play, we are trying to be the next person to make that big play. If it's a game where the defensive line is making a lot of big plays than you can pretty much expect us to win this game."
"I think we do a good job with each other," Jefferson said. "Me and ‘Taj' on the inside mostly handling the run and we've got those two on the edges for the pass—it is a good compliment, a good mixture."
"Everybody has their own personalities. We have the live, uppity type-guys and me, I'm just kind of quiet. But when it comes down to the football field we are all one—we are out there to win games and we are all aggressive."