Wisconsin's defense faces another stern challenge this week against Northwestern (3-3 overall, 2-1 Big Ten). The Wildcats boast a spread attack led by two of the Big Ten's most exciting players—quarterback Brett Basanez and tailback Noah Herron.
Cue the music.
All year long the Badgers have been reminded—by their coaches, media and fans—of the next test. Each team, it seems, has presented a challenge Wisconsin's seemingly impenetrable defense has not yet faced.
In rapid succession the tunes called out. But Penn State's unique playmaker (Michael Robinson), Illinois' balance, offensive line and experience at quarterback and Ohio State's physicality and home-field advantage proved only cursory confrontations.
Last week, Purdue's offense and Wisconsin's defense were brandished about the media marketplace as an epic battle of titans.
At halftime that battle had been reduced to a whimper. Heisman favorite Kyle Orton was 10-for-19 with 96 yards and two turnovers. Purdue had been held to 122 yards total offense and zero points.
"First half, I don't know how you can play any better than we did against them," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said. "They are a very good offense."
Wisconsin's game plan was simple in its complexity. Show a number of looks to try to cause confusion, rush the passer with as few players as possible and not give an inch in the secondary.
The scheme worked. Twice in the first half Orton called an audible only to soon thereafter call a timeout.
"I think in the first half we did a good job of disguising our coverages and checking when he checked and just trying to confuse him a little bit," cornerback Scott Starks said.
Wisconsin also threw a number of different personnel groupings at the Boilermakers and in some ways they had not shown previously this season.
The Badgers played with six defensive backs far more often than at any other time this season. They did so in the customary fashion, with four defensive linemen and one linebacker, often Dontez Sanders, and gave dime corner Levonne Rowan his most significant playing time of the year.
For the first time this season, Wisconsin also employed a 3-3-5 scheme with dime personnel, playing reserve safety Joe Stellmacher as a middle linebacker and Chuckie Cowans at nickel corner. Stellmacher occasionally played middle linebacker in the regular dime as well, giving the Badgers seven defensive backs.
Wisconsin had dabbled with Stellmacher at mike all week due to the injury to starter Reggie Cribbs. Andy Crooks started Saturday and played primarily in the base defense.
"Stell's a special player; very, very intelligent," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "Wednesday during middle drill he made a couple plays and I said, ‘I ought to be able to roll him in in place of Crooksy and be my No. 1 mike linebacker.'"
The key to the defense, though, was the pressure applied by defensive ends Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James, both of whom were injured by the third quarter.
"You could see [Orton] had a lot more time to throw the football. It was a different ball game for us in the second half," Alvarez said.
Wisconsin's defense, though, still made the play of the game, and perhaps of the entire Big Ten season to-date, when Starks scooped up the fumble he and Robert Brooks forced and sprinted 40 yards to a game-winning touchdown.
Scheme is one thing. Attitude made it work.
Offenses like Purdue's are expected to pick up yards in bunches. The corollary is that defenses are expected to concede yardage along the way. That is the way Wisconsin has played in past years versus spread attacks: bend, don't break.
The Badgers entered Saturday's game as they have all season, refusing to yield.
"It is a whole different swagger," Starks said. "The whole point of a defense is to stop an offense, not to allow them to get certain things."
"I think teams that have played them in the past gave them free plays, gave them things that maybe they didn't earn every yard of it," Bielema said. "That's something we really, really stress is ‘they're going to gain yards, there is no doubt about it,' but we're not going to give them free yards. We're not going to let them go to the grocery store, pick up 15 bucks of groceries when they've only got five bucks in their pocket."
"We just want to do what the defense is out there for," Starks said. "The offense is out there to score. They are not going to say, ‘well, yeah, they are going to stop this, they are going to stop that and hopefully we'll score.' They go out there and they try to score. When the defense steps out on the field, if they try that today we are going to stop that."
Attitude, scheme key Badger ‘D'
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