However, in the Badgers 49-14 shellacking at the hands of Michigan State Saturday, the Badger defense was sloppy, inconsistent and anything but solid for the first time all season.
"It was just a lack of communication on the field, missed tackles, we weren't finishing and everything that could go wrong today, went wrong," senior cornerback Scott Starks said.
Entering the contest, the Badgers had only given up more than 100 yards on the ground twice all season. In this contest, however, UW allowed two Spartan backs to go over the century plateau, each for the first time in their careers. Jehuu Caulcrick tallied 146 yards on 13 carries and Jason Teague had 112 on 17. DeAndra Cobb added 78 on five attempts, and quarterback Damon Dowdell ran three times in the first half for 72.
All told the Spartans ran for 430 yards on 44 attempts. In six previous Big Ten games opponents had run for 565 yards on 172 carries.
From start to finish, Michigan State controlled both lines of scrimmage, primarily with their offensive line. For the first time all season, UW's prolific front four appeared overmatched and outmuscled.
"Today, definitely the more physical unit wasn't wearing red and white," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "I think they took it to us, I think they forced us into some situations where there were one-on-one tackles and I don't think we tackled particularly well."
UW's poor tackling was evident all game considering the amount of big plays the team allowed over the course of 60 minutes. Prior to Michigan State, UW had given up only seven plays on the ground over 20 yards, however Saturday, the Badgers defense allowed five runs for over 20 yards, including runs of 42, 55, 59 and 61. Against MSU a defense that had only allowed 4.03 yards per play gave up nearly nine yards per play.
"We pride ourselves in not giving up big plays and we just gave up too many big plays today," Starks said. "That really hurt us."
"I told our guys after the game, I said, ‘We're in a situation we haven't been in before and I'm not talking about coming in here and talking to you after a defeat but coming in here and talking to you after an opponent, I believe, outworked what we were all about on the field,'" Bielema said.
A lot of the game-breaking plays were courtesy of poor fundamentals and missed tackles.
Also noteworthy was Michigan State's ability to manhandle UW's senior front four. The quartet of Erasmus James, Anttaj Hawthorne, Jonathan Welsh and Jason Jefferson appeared slow of the ball, not in positions to make tackles and never really put pressure on either MSU quarterbacks Dowdell or Drew Stanton.
The four did collect 13 tackles (three for losses) and one sack but it was not nearly the performance the quartet has enjoyed throughout this season. Michigan State's offensive line completely shutdown the productivity of UW's wall up front. Of particular note was the play of senior right tackle Sean Poole, who held previously indomitable senior defensive end Erasmus James to only three tackles.
"I haven't seen that all year," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "Other than them blocking us well and we took some bad angles to the ball and missed some tackles … there were some big holes in there."
Whether it was with their running backs or quarterbacks, the Spartans ran hog wild over the UW defense. More than just pick them apart, Michigan State really humbled a Badgers defense that was considered one of the best in the country.
"I think there were obviously some things that happened out there that our guys were not accustomed to doing and the biggest thing is to be able to take this as a learning experience. Everything we've done to this point, we've learned from, I don't see any reason we won't at this point," Bielema said.