Should the Badgers hold their final Big Ten opponent under 100 yards rushing, Wisconsin's defense would have gone through the entire Big Ten season having not allowed a team to break the 100-yard rushing mark.
"One of our team goals is to reestablish Wisconsin football and that starts up front in the trenches," sophomore defensive tackle J.J. Watt said. "We're trying to do our part and not having a Big Ten running back over 100 yards is something we're extremely proud of."
After UW allowed 132.5 rushing yards per game (3.9 yards per carry) and 16 rushing touchdowns in conference games a season ago, the emphasis on stopping the run was loud and clear at every 6 a.m. January workout.
After limiting Michigan, the then-conference leading rushing offense, to only 71 rushing yards, the Badgers have allowed 71.9 rushing yards (2.5 yards per carry) in seven Big Ten games and have given up only three rushing TDs. The most rushing yards they have allowed in a conference game was against Ohio State, which had 27 carries for 97 yards.
If UW can stop Northwestern (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten), who is eighth in the conference in rushing (124.2 ypg), this afternoon, it would be just the third UW team in school history Wisconsin to led the league in rushing defense in conference games (1949 and 1951).
"It would mean a lot to be able to do that," senior O'Brien Schofield said. "It shows that we take pride in our work and that guys have really focused in on doing their jobs."
The improvement in the numbers directly correlates with the new-found depth on UW's defensive line. After playing most of last season with only four capable starters, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has been able to keep players fresh, by using a three-player rotation at defensive tackle with seniors Dan Moore and Jeff Stehle and sophomore Patrick Butrym.
That group, along with senior Jordan Hein playing 8-to-10 snaps a game, have shut down four of the top 22 rushing offensives in the country this season (No. 6 Fresno State, No. 11 Northern Illinois, No. 21 Michigan and No. 22 Ohio State), only allowing Fresno State's Ryan Matthews to break the 100-yard barrier (19 for 107).
"They've been critical for us, not only to close out the games, but now to allow us to play strong down the stretch of the season," UW coach Bret Bielema said of the shared snaps. "It has had a big effect."
"I always felt that if you had someone who had a main rushing guy and you held him under 100 yards, you would more than likely have success, take away their best threat. That's what I kind of ingrained when I first came here."
Stopping the run is one thing, but the main reason Wisconsin has won eight games in 2009 is the ability to couple its stout run defense with a potent running attack, as UW ranks as the top rushing unit in the conference, averaging 208 yards per game.
Should the Badgers finish first in rushing offense and rushing defense in conference games, they would be the first UW team since 1951 and the last Big Ten team to accomplish that feat since Ohio State in 1996 … another stat the group is well aware of.
"You look around the country and it's kind of a rarity," said quarterback Scott Tolzien. "It speaks volumes about what the guys are doing. I think the one thing that's cool about that is I think the other teams know that we're coming in to run the ball. To still be able to do it, even though (defenses) are stacking the box, that's pretty neat."