Worgull: Style Points Not Available

Returning seven starters and the entire front in 2007, Wisconsin defense was supposed to be a run-stopping, offensive crushing force. After allowing over 560 yards to the Spartans, it is obvious that something is wrong.

MADISON - Coming into the season, Wisconsin's defense was the unit with the fewest question marks. Heralded for only losing four starters and returning a core group that finished the season ranked fifth nationally in total defense, the Badgers looked to be a force stopping opposing offenses.

With that explanation, one wonders who these players are that are wearing the cardinal and white for the majority of the season.

A week after seemingly fixing its mistakes defensively, the Badgers produced one of their poorest defensive efforts of the season, allowing Michigan State's offense to rack up 564 yards of total offense. Still, somehow, Wisconsin survived the onslaught and escaped with a three-point victory margin.

"I do know this, I told the guys that they don't want to make anything easy," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "Hopefully, down the line, this is all going to pay off."

In order for this performance to pay off, the Badgers are going to need to return to basics this upcoming week in preparation for (gasp) another spread-offense attack. Poor tackling, the inability to stop the run and lack of penetration all were key figures in a defensive showing against Michigan State that could at best be characterized as below average.

Wisconsin's rush defense – ranked sixth in the Big Ten giving up 96.8 yards per game – was horrid against the two-headed Spartan rushing attack led by Jehuu Caulcrick and Javon Ringer. Caulcrick – ranked second in the Big Ten with six touchdowns – could not be kept out of the end zone by the Badgers, a task only the problem-plagued Notre Dame was successful doing. Caulcrick ran 17 times for 73 yards and two scores against a defense that, on paper, is noticeably better than that of the Irish.

"They are a good offense and to stop them, we just needed to do our jobs and get where we needed to be," defensive end Matt Shaughnessy said. "We expected everything [Caulcrick ran] today."

The real struggle for Wisconsin was against Javon Ringer, who looked like a Heisman Trophy winner against the Badger defense. Ringer only ran 10 times but racked up 145 rushing yards - a staggering 14.5 rushing average. Ringer cut through Wisconsin's defense like a hot knife through butter, making the Badgers tackling skills look very pedestrian as Ringer highlighted Wisconsin's poor tackling attempt after attempt.

"We knew they were a good team coming and we'd have to do our jobs to be successful," Shaughnessy said. "We need to tackle better, get our face on the ball and wrap up basically. We need to finish the play."

Michigan State's biggest play offensively was a prime example of Wisconsin's troubles over the course of the afternoon. On a simple bubble route, Michigan State Z receiver Devin Thomas caught the ball no more than five yards past the line of scrimmage. When he was done running 80 yards later, the Spartans quickly erased another Wisconsin lead, another repetitive theme of the afternoon.

"I felt that we didn't get off blocks," Bielema said. "We made some good tackles and brought some second and third hits to the ball carrier. Some of those one-on-one blocks on the perimeter, we just couldn't get off and make a play. On that bubble screen, Allen [Langford] had outside leverage but couldn't get off the block."

For a defense that prides itself on not giving up the big play this season, the Badgers, for whatever the reason, did not follow their M.O. against the Spartans. Michigan State's offense generated eight plays of 20 yards or more against Wisconsin's defense and two plays that went for 70 yards or more.

"Obviously it concerns me, especially the big plays," Bielema said. "In particular, the bubble route that broke free and the big run up the middle that went close to a score. It's something that you can't accept or you're going to get yourself beat … The [tackles] that they didn't make concern me."

But, with the game on the line in the waning minutes for the second consecutive week, the Badgers defense buckled down when they needed to. With the Spartans on the fringe of field goal range at the Badger 38, MSU head coach Mike Dantonio decided to go for it on fourth-and-two after his kicker missed a 53-yard try on the drive before. Looking to dump the ball into the flat, the Badger defense, led by Kirk DeCremer's pass rush, were able to put enough pressure on MSU quarterback Brian Hoyer to rush his pass. With Elijah Hodge providing stout coverage, the pass dropped harmlessly to the turf and the Badgers victory was (exhale) finally secure.

"That's our character," senior Nick Hayden said. "We know that we have to step up but we hope it's not like that. We stepped up at the end and kept our heads high all day."

With Wisconsin defense being criticized publicly, along with a weekly drop in the polls, Bielema maintains that outside circumstances don't effect his team's preparation or output. All that matters is that the coach goes 1-0 for the week with optional style points, which is something he's a 17-for-18 for in two seasons.

"This isn't skating; we don't get style points," Bielema said. "We are not a pretty football team. We're not a sexy school. We just go out and play Wisconsin football. Fortunately for us, that's converted itself into a lot of wins."

With all due respect, if Wisconsin's defense isn't fixed and fixed in the next six days, the winning, and the team's character, could take a serious hit.

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