Looking for Redemption

Coming into a season with high expectations and struggling to live up to that for seven games, Wisconsin's defense has reworked the system and is looking to complete the turnaround against Tennessee.

MADISON - Returning seven starters from a dominating defense that helped the Badgers shatter plenty of program records (including a new program high with 12 wins) in 2006, Wisconsin felt pretty confident that 2007 would be another banner year for the defense.

Especially after what the starters did last season, even replacing two linebackers and two safeties seemed like a moot point.

Wisconsin owned the nation's No.1-ranked pass efficiency defense (84.19 rating), tied for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (six) and was No.2 in the nation in passing yards allowed (138.3 yards per game).

The Badgers led the Big Ten and ranked No.5 nationally in total defense, allowing just 253.1 yards per game, and allowed only four teams to eclipse the 300-yard mark in total offense.

The Badgers were first in the Big Ten and second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 12.1 points per game and had 25 takeaways in 2006 (tied for fifth in conference).

"After the way we played last year during the conference season and in the (Capital One) bowl," junior end Matt Shaughnessy said, "we felt pretty good with the people coming back that we'd be successful again."

But the good thoughts and vibes by the defense vanished very quickly. Wisconsin allowed over 325 yards to four of its first five opponents, including a season-high 564 total yards gained by Michigan State.

With defensive struggles at the forefront, the Badgers couldn't stop the spread offensive attack by Illinois, allowing 410 yards in their first loss in over a year and were humbled by 437 offensive yards from the Nittany Lions the following week.

"We couldn't get much more down after that game," said free safety Shane Carter about Wisconsin's first two-game losing streak since November 2005. "We used that game as a rallying point. We knew that if we didn't fix things that we'd be in for a long season."

After allowing 25.9 points and 378.6 total yards through its first seven contests, Wisconsin did start to rally in its final five games.

Surrendering just 19.8 points per game down the stretch, Wisconsin held three of its final five opponents under 325 yards, including limiting Northern Illinois to just 99 yards.

The Badgers run defense – which finished the season ranked sixth in conference (139.8 yards) – allowed only 107.8 yards in their final five games, including a sparse 47 rushing yards by Michigan.

"Those two games were really important," cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu said. "(Northern Illinois) gave us our confidence back and stopping Michigan showed everybody that we are still a good defensive team and we still can be a dangerous team."

Not only did the Badgers limit the run, they started making plays, forcing 13 turnovers in the final five games.

With Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge's confidence potentially rattled after two costly interceptions in the SEC Championship game, the Badger secondary is hoping to receive a similar result.

"One thing we really didn't do well this year was turnovers," Ikegwuonu said. "We want to create more turnovers. Last year, we created a lot of turnovers that led to a lot of defensive team success. Winning the turnover battle is one of the biggest statistics in the outcome of the game."

Another key factor for the Badgers is being able to overcome a smattering of injuries that have plagued Wisconsin. After losing Allen Langford and Jason Chapman to knee injuries against Ohio State and Minnesota, respectively, freshman Aaron Henry, whom replaced Langford at cornerback, tore his ACL in a non-contact drill during bowl preparation practices.

Needless to say, the Badgers are incredibly thin in the secondary.

"We're lucky that it happened now and not the Thursday before the game," head coach Bret Bielema said. "It's too bad (how it happened) but we expect Aaron back by fall camp."

The Badgers are also looking for consistency at strong safety. Although sophomore Aubrey Pleasant has started 12 games at the position this season, sophomore Kim Royston and redshirt freshman Jay Valai have seen time at the safety spot this season.

During bowl practices, converted wide receiver Chris Maragos has emerged as a new candidate for the job. Playing wide receiver and safety at Racine Horlick High School, Maragos played two seasons at Western Michigan before transferring.

"He's doing some good things," UW secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "It's early obviously but he still has those instincts needed to play the position. Spring practices are going to be important for him."

Although the defense, according to Ikegwuonu, has not been ‘up to par,' the Badgers, who have lived up to those preseason expectations over the last five games, will have plenty of incentives to deliver a solid performance against Tennessee.

"We know if we don't play well that we're going to have that bad taste in our mouths until August," Ikegwuonu said. "If we play well, that gives us so much momentum heading into next season."

Total Yards Allowed by Wisconsin

WASHINGTON STATE – 328 total yards (157 rushing, 171 passing)

at UNLV – 306 total yards (48 rushing, 258 passing)

THE CITADEL – 377 total yards (123 rushing, 254 passing)

IOWA – 228 total yards (59 rushing, 169 passing)

MICHIGAN STATE – 564 total yards (241 rushing, 323 passing)

at Illinois – 410 total yards (289 rushing, 121 passing)

at Penn State – 437 total yards (221 rushing, 216 passing)

NORTHERN ILLINOIS – 99 total yards (-13 rushing, 112 passing)

INDIANA – 258 total yards (145 rushing, 113 passing)

at Ohio State – 377 total yards (37 rushing, 269 passing)

MICHIGAN – 320 total yards (47 rushing, 273 passing)

at Minnesota - 501 total yards (149 rushing, 352 passing)

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