There are plenty of questions surrounding Wisconsin's football team as the 2004 season quickly approaches. How will Barry Alvarez juggle his dual role of head coach and athletic director? Will Anthony Davis and Erasmus James return to their pre-injured forms? How will John Stocco perform under fire when the snaps count for real and he is taking every one of them?
The most closely watched question, though, is whether Wisconsin's defense can regain the fire and form it possessed through two Rose Bowl Championship seasons in 1998 and '99. Those years, the Badgers allowed just 11.9 and 12.8 points per game. In the four years since, Wisconsin has allowed 20.4, 28.8, 23.0 and 23.5, respectively. Gone now is Wisconsin's defensive coordinator for the previous 10 seasons, Kevin Cosgrove, who took the same job on Bill Callahan's staff at Nebraska last winter. In his place is an energetic young coordinator who claimed a starring role at Kansas State, where his defenses the past two years were among the best in the nation.
Bret Bielema is the kind of fast-rising coach that is already viewed in many circles as the heir apparent to Alvarez. Such talk, however, can wait. For now, Bielema's task is to get a talented group of largely veteran players to come to the field and play well for an entire season.
"The best thing I got to do was when I came in is, I took the first game and watched through the last game and then I watched it in reverse order and kind of tried to figure out what was exploited in those later games that kind of came out," Bielema said. "They started off, I believe they were what, 6-1… Things were going pretty good and (they) kind of ran into some stumbling blocks. I really tried to pinpoint exactly what had happened and how it needed to be corrected.
"I think, obviously, everyone wants to know if we're going to be a more aggressive defense and my answer to that is, we're going to try to put as much pressure on an offense as we can, but that doesn't necessarily mean a blitz or a full-man coverage," he said, anticipating the question on many people's minds. "What we want to do to offenses is try to show enough dexterity, ability to do one thing in one situation and in the same situation, be able to do another."
There is every reason for Wisconsin's defense to be among the best in the Big Ten and quite possibly the nation. The Badgers return eight starters, most of whom will be seniors this fall and also reap the return of former starter James, a defensive end who missed all of last season with a hip injury. There are significant questions at linebacker but the Badgers have options at that position. The team has bona fide stars in defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne and free safety Jim Leonhard and a handful of other players who could have breakout seasons.
"I really don't see any holes," Bielema said.
What Bielema has attempted to do since joining the Badgers' staff is work with his new team's strengths and foster a physical, aggressive attitude—his own little recipe for success.
"I think the one thing you know in the Big Ten Conference is there's a lot of people that have made a living in this league by doing things with a little bit of an attitude, guys that play hard and physical," Bielema said. "Guys, obviously, that play fast are an added bonus. But I think our guys, they really take the challenge of it, they want to be known as a physical group of guys. From what I saw of last year's film and what I continue to see this spring, I just want to see some guys step up to the plate and make themselves a challenge within the group and do what they can to get it done.
"I think defensively what we want to do is we want to line up and play solid defense, we want to be able to put the football in our offensive hands in good position. We'll want to probably try to be known as a group of people that will line up and hit you and do what you need to do to win the game. We can sit there at the end of the season and know that we did our best to accomplish all the goals that we wanted to accomplish and we did it in the right way and we didn't take anything away from our kids because of something that we did in a coaching philosophy or in a coaching scheme. That's going to be a successful season.
"I really don't see any other way to go about it other than we're really going to try to make each day 1-0. I don't care if it's Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Whatever happens on Saturday, the next day, we're just trying to be 1-0 again."
Bielema ready to hit ground running
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