It is no secret that Wisconsin has struggled against teams that have highly tuned passing attacks. The two best the Badgers had faced this season heading into Saturday's game—Akron and Purdue—torched Wisconsin for a combined 783 yards and two touchdowns on 69 of 107 passing with two interceptions.
Even an extremely unrefined passing game like Penn State's (worst in the Big Ten in pass efficiency) had enjoyed gaudy success against Wisconsin, racking up 379 passing yards.
This time, though, the Badgers were ready. For the first time in Kevin Cosgrove's tenure as defensive coordinator Wisconsin predominantly employed three down linemen and coupled this with the use of a zone blitz scheme from a 3-3-5 look. The Badgers rarely rushed more than four players and often dropped eight in coverage, but still managed to consistently pressure and seemingly confuse Smoker.
As a result Smoker was sacked five times and was often firing passes into double coverage. The Spartan gunslinger struggled by his standards, completing 16 of 29 passes for 207 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
"They are a third down offense no matter what the down and distance is," Cosgrove said. "We went with our ‘silver' package the whole game basically.
"We knew they were going to be in empty on any down and distance situation. We wanted our kids to be able to play fast… It was a new defense that we put in this week."
While Wisconsin's offense was providing fireworks, the defense was setting a tone, forcing four punts and a turnover on Michigan State's six first half possessions. The Spartans lone solace, a second quarter touchdown pass, came following a 59-yard kickoff return. By the time Smoker threw his second touchdown, the Badgers had already scored 35 points.
"We came up with a scheme…where we could rush four, we could rush five, we could blitz out of it," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "We thought we could get pressure with three and get eight guys in the secondary where we could press up on their spread formations and still have combinations and double some guys. We could give them a lot of different pictures and I don't know whether they had seen some of that stuff before."
‘Silver' featured linebacker Alex Lewis playing rush end, a position he has played sporadically in nickel situations this season, and consistently in games against West Virginia and Purdue. Against Purdue Lewis exploded with five sacks and followed that performance Saturday with two more to go along with 3.5 tackles for loss. Lewis' only other sack this season came against West Virginia when he blitzed from his customary strongside linebacker spot.
Jonathan Welsh returned to his starting spot at defensive end after missing last week's game against Minnesota with a knee injury and Anttaj Hawthorne anchored the inside as the sole defensive tackle. The move to three linemen also improved Wisconsin's depth, allowing Darius Jones to rotate in at end and tackle, while Nick Cochart and Joe Monty rotated at end and regular starting tackle Jason Jefferson helped spell Hawthorne at tackle.
In the secondary, Scott Starks and Chuckie Cowans played corner with Jim Leonhard and reserve safety Robert Brooks playing deep zones throughout the game. Three players—Levonne Rowan, freshman Roderick Rogers, and starting receiver Brandon Williams—served time at nickel corner. Williams also played a few series as a base corner.
"We tried to get as much speed on the field as we could," Aiello said. "A lot of their offense is short passes and they try to break tackles. We tried to eliminate that and put as many defensive backs on the field as we could."
Wisconsin consistently showed blitz but bailed at the snap, dropping into coverage to gang up on the Spartans' receivers, who were hard-pressed to break tackles and pick up additional yards.
The Badgers' three-man line, meanwhile, provided ample pressure. In addition to Lewis' performance, Welsh added two sacks and Hawthorne, who was consistently double teamed, had 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
"The coverages are pretty much the same," Cosgrove said. "It was just a change up with the front and different pressures that we sent. It wasn't real complicated, but we were able to do a lot of different things off it."