For good reason, when Illinois coach Ron Turner took a look at film of Wisconsin's defense he was taken aback. He was impressed with the whole package, but the Illini had to do something to contain the Badgers' defensive line or else his typically high flying offense stood no chance.
So Illinois went with max protection on a majority of pass plays. They constantly doubled Badger defensive end Erasmus James with a tight end and/or a running back. They shifted their blocking schemes to put as many bodies on that defensive line—a line that had man handled four previous opponents—as possible.
The tactic was partially successful. Wisconsin's starting linemen combined for just seven tackles and no sacks. The problem is that the extra attention freed the Badgers' linebackers to make play after play. Will linebacker Dontez Sanders (13 tackles, two sacks, forced fumble), mike linebacker Reggie Cribbs (10 tackles) and sam linebacker Mark Zalewski (five tackles and a fumble recovery) more than picked up the slack. Illinois scored seven points and had just 206 total yards.
"Our defense is made of more than four players," Cribbs said. "Our defense consists of 11 football players. If you concentrate on four than you are going to have a lot of problems because we all can play defense."
As the Badgers head into the toughest portion of their schedule, beginning with Saturday's tussle at Ohio State, they will likely see more teams try to solve the nation's top-ranked defense by focusing on its collection of NFL-bound linemen.
Rightfully so. James, tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson and end Jonathan Welsh are arguably the best quartet in the nation. All of Wisconsin's opponents knew all about the four seniors well before this season began.
The Badgers' linebackers, on the other hand, were rather green before the season started. All three were starting for the first time; Cribbs and Sanders were making their first appearances at linebacker.
No matter. The trio has played well all season. With the front occupying blocks, the ‘backers have been able to use their significant speed to chase ball carriers down all over the field.
"The defense has 11 parts and all those parts have to work together," defensive coordinator and co-linebackers coach Bret Bielema said. "Sometimes certain parts are going to be featured certain plays. They have to stand up, bow up and do what they're supposed to do.
"If people are getting double teams or if people are having schemes that are attacking them in particular, they've got to hold off and the other people have to do their job around them."
A defensive mentality that does not demonize mistakes has also helped the young linebackers. The Badgers have prided themselves all season on improvement, but a player need not fear a quick hook.
"When you make mistakes, you can't let it happen again because if it doesn't happen again it doesn't mean anything," Cribbs said. "It allows you to play faster, play with all your aggression."
Sanders leads the team with 33 tackles. Cribbs is second (31), with Zalewski fourth (21). Zalewski is also second on the team in tackles for loss (5) and sacks (3).
"We are just playing football," Cribbs said. "People aren't going to respect us until they want to. Respect is something you gain over a period of time."
The last time Wisconsin played in ‘The Horseshoe', Dontez Sanders, a Bedford, Ohio, native, was redshirting as a wide receiver. Sanders' older brother, Darnell, played tight end for Ohio State (1999-2001) and now plays for the Atlanta Falcons.
Dontez spent his youth cheering for Ohio State but ironically shunned the Buckeyes' recruiting overtures because they wanted him to play safety. One year into his UW career he was converted to—what else?—safety, before making the transition to linebacker last spring.
"I'm going to enjoy this week," Sanders said.
Reminded that Bedford native Lee Evans made the biggest play in last season's Badger/Buckeye tilt, Sanders laughed.
"I'm going to try to just play hard," he said.
Be careful how you count
After the conclusion of college football's last weekend, Wisconsin was listed No. 2 in total yardage defense in the NCAA's official stats. However, a 16-yard error in North Carolina State's box score increased the Wolfpack's average allowed from 189.75 yards per game to 193.75. At 193.2 Wisconsin is now narrowly credited as the top-ranked defense in the country. The Badgers also lead the nation in scoring defense (5.2 points per game).
Stand and deliver
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