Another challenge awaits UW defense

Injuries and youth have contributed to the Badgers' struggles versus good offenses

Over the past two college football Saturdays, Wisconsin's defense has experienced a cruel form of déjà vu. Injuries are mounting and good offenses are running up some awe-inspiring numbers.

Yet, the nightmare keeps shifting focus.

In Evanston two weeks ago, the Badgers had to contend with Northwestern's immaculately efficient spread offense. The result: the Wildcats accumulated 674 total yards, 313 rushing yards and 51 points in handing UW its only loss this season.

Last week in Minneapolis, the Badgers stood just tall enough against Minnesota's brutal running game, winning 38-34 despite allowing 411 rushing yards and 510 yards total offense.

This Saturday, Wisconsin (6-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) hosts a staggering Purdue (2-4, 0-3) team, which has lost four straight games but owns the No. 3 offense in the Big Ten. And for the fourth time this season, UW will have to face up to a spread offense.

"They'll probably watch the tapes of what we struggled on in the past with that type of offense," safety Joe Stellmacher said of the Boilermakers. "They'll probably try to attack us that same way."

Against the spread-style offenses of Bowling Green, Indiana and Northwestern the Badgers gave up an average of 524.7 yards and 39 points per game.

"We can't fear that, though," Stellmacher said. "We've got to play with confidence… Yeah, we've given up quite a few points to some spread-offense teams, but we're going to learn from those mistakes and we're going to practice hard all week. Hopefully we'll come out with a little better outcome."

The silver lining is that UW will not face another offense as effective as Northwestern's or another running game as punishing as Minnesota's. The Wildcats are No. 4 nationally in total offense; the Gophers lead the nation in rushing.

Purdue averages 458.7 total yards, but turnovers have led to just 27 points per Big Ten game, tied for seventh in the conference.

Suspect tackling and shaky attention to assignments have plagued Wisconsin, leading to big plays for opponents. At least those things are in the Badgers' control. Saturday, UW won despite playing without six of its top eight defensive linemen down the stretch.

Already missing tackle Justin Ostrowski (knee), end Jamal Cooper (knee) and tackle Mark Gorman (foot), end Joe Monty was lost to a knee injury in the first quarter Saturday. Tackle Jason Chapman (ankle) missed much of Saturday's game and end Kurt Ware (ankle) was lost in the fourth quarter.

In some much-needed good news for UW, coach Barry Alvarez said Tuesday that Monty's injury is not as severe as originally feared, though there is no timetable for his return. Chapman and Ware are listed on UW's official depth this week but are doubtful for Saturday.

"I'm sure it's taken its toll," Stellmacher said of the defensive line injuries, "but the level of expectation doesn't drop at all for whoever's in there. Coach JP [defensive line coach John Palermo], he'll have his guys ready to go, whoever it is."

The injuries have left Wisconsin with a defensive line two-deep made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores. The Badgers' second-team linebackers are two true freshmen and a redshirt freshman. And with the apparent demotion of Brett Bell to the second team, the two starting cornerbacks are redshirt freshmen Allen Langford and Jack Ikegwuonu.

"We don't like to give up that many yards," Alvarez said Monday. "Our guys are trying. Got a lot of young people playing defense… So let's not be so critical all the time and point the finger at a lot of young guys that maybe are playing before they actually should be ready to play."

Offense cruising: With the Badger defense struggling, its offense may get the feeling it has to score every drive. So far the unit is not buckling under that pressure. UW is eighth in the nation in scoring offense (40.7 points per game).

"That's the offense's goal anyway," tailback Brian Calhoun said. "They want to score every drive. It's not frustrating at all. That's just what we've got to do. That's what we're capable of so that's our expectations."

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