Entering the 2004 season, the Badgers' biggest question mark lay in the linebacking corps. After Jeff Mack and Alex Lewis exhausted their eligibility, the defense as a whole lost 187 tackles, 10 sacks and an immeasurable amount of leadership. The man who had headed the defense and personally coached linebackers for 10 seasons, Kevin Cosgrove, was also on his way out.
As Saturday came, Bret Bielema was at the helm of the defense and Reggie Cribbs, Dontez Sanders and Mark Zalewski were positioned as the Badgers starting linebackers. Saturday, the linebackers passed their first test.
With speed as their greatest asset, the Badger linebackers were roaming all over the field. They contained the Central Florida running game, holding senior tailback Alex Haynes to just 56 yards, and came up with some big plays that kept the Golden Knight offense off the scoreboard.
"You always want more of it," Bielema said on the speed his linebacking corps. "I suppose if I had all 4.4 guys I'd want 4.3 guys, but I do think if our guys if they're lined up and they know what they're doing before the snap and they can react to what they see, they'll play faster. There were plays today when that wasn't so apparent and I think we just need to get a little more consistent at that."
The linebackers were in on 20 tackles Saturday, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Sanders, a former wide receiver and safety, made the most noise, recording six tackles, pressuring the quarterback and recovering a fumble. The Bedford, Ohio, native feels as though he and his fellow linebackers are made all the better by the ability of the front four in front of them.
"Sometimes they take tackles away from me, but other than that, it's great," Sanders says of the Badgers' front four. "They keep the guards off me so I can just run and try and make plays."
While speed is the UW linebackers' greatest strength, it also sometimes got the best of them. On several occasions, Sanders and backup linebacker LaMarr Watkins overran some plays and other times the linebackers missed tackles in the running game, relying on safeties Jim Leonhard and Johnny White to clean up the mess.
"I know we missed some tackles," Bielema said. "There was a contain problem. There were some things that happened there during the course of the game that need to be corrected and I think our kids will do that."
For an optimist like Bielema, the things that went wrong against Central Florida are a blessing in disguise and will only help the Badger linebackers prepare for next weekend's game against UNLV.
"There were so many good things that happened out there that were negatives," Bielema said. "They happened, now we just have to make the corrections (so) that they don't happen again."
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