Saturday's 24-7 victory over Illinois was simply the latest edition of defensive dominance for Wisconsin. The Badger surrendered only 206 yards of total offense to a Fighting Illini offense that torched a tough Purdue defensive unit for 30 points and nearly 400 yards a week ago.
"Defensively, I thought they had a big challenge going into the game," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "I was not exaggerating…I really felt that this was the best offense (we've faced) and one of the better offenses we'll see. They have weapons and threats in all areas, at all of their skill positions, but I really was very pleased with how our defense responded and how they played."
With Illinois leaving its tight ends and running backs in to block on a large percentage of its passing plays, the Wisconsin defensive line was held relatively in check. However, this tactic simply opened opportunities for the Badger linebackers. The starting trio of Dontez Sanders, Reggie Cribbs, and Mark Zalewski answered the call, and each recorded tackles for losses.
"We had to be balanced," Alvarez said. "It couldn't just be the D-line, and with maximum protection they took [Erasmus James] and some of the D-linemen out of the mix, because you can't get a lot of pressure on. That puts the pressure on the linebackers and the secondary. And I thought they stepped up and did some good things today."
Sanders led the way, recording 13 total tackles and two sacks, while Cribbs added 10 tackles.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Jamal Cooper also made the most of his opportunities on the defensive line, with a quarterback hurry and a tackle when spelling James.
"What I did like today, there were some guys that rolled in there because some guys were banged up," Bielema said. "Coach Palermo was subbing those defensive linemen. ‘Coop' came up with a big play, he got the face mask on the one, but those guys are rolling through in there and doing some good things. So, I think that's exciting, to have those kids feel the energy and the excitement of playing some football together."
While Illinois' offense moved the ball into Wisconsin territory on its first possession, the Badger defense stood tall in the opening half, allowing just 88 yards. Over the course of the game, the Fighting Illini managed just one drive of over 50 yards, and tallied the lone chink in the Wisconsin defensive armor, a three-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Pazan to tight end Melvin Bryant, after a turnover gave them the ball at the Badger 34-yard line.
"I was frustrated, not so much because it wasn't a shutout, but we really, really pride ourselves on sudden changes," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "They get the hit, they get the ball out, they got the ball on whatever yard line it started on. We've really got to come out and take it to another level."
Even more frustrating for the defense was an inadvertent whistle before the touchdown, which caused some Badgers to stop playing.
"I don't know what happened on that touchdown," Zalewski said, "but we all thought the whistle blew. But, yeah it hurt putting those points on the board."
Wisconsin will look to continue its defensive prowess next week at Ohio State, and even after yielding just seven points, Alvarez knows that there is always room for improvement.
"We're getting better," Alvarez said. "I think I know the defense a little better now than I did a week ago. But, I think they'll all be the first to tell you we've got to continue to get better."
Defense dominates yet again
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