While the verdict may still be out on Wisconsin's rebuilt offense, the one constant from 2014 will be the Badger defense under young mastermind coordinator Dave Aranda. An absolute shelling at the hands of eventual National Champion Ohio State in the Big 10 title game aside, the Badgers fielded one of the nation's most formidable defenses in the nation in 2014, in what was predicted to be a rebuilding year at that.
What will 2015 hold for Aranda's aggressive, shifty unit? That will be defined as the Badgers will get things started against the 3rd ranked Crimson Tide, a team looking to end its Big 10 losing streak at one in the AdvoCare Classic at ATT Stadium on September 5. The Tide, still stung from its College Football Playoffs loss to Ohio State, brings what could be one of the best defenses in the nation to the table. On the offensive side of the ball, however, less is certain, as no starter has yet been named at the all-important quarterback position with only days until kickoff.
Despite the uncertainty under center, what is known is that Alabama will likely throw a run-heavy package at the Wisconsin defense, something which will place to the Badgers' strength as a unit. Much as has been the case with Alabama over the last four years, the Wisconsin defense was previously built to stop the run-first, pro-style defenses of the Big 10. With the increase in the utilization of spread offensive schemes, the Badger defense has shifted to include fewer behemoths and more athletes in an effort to handle spread attacks while maintaining integrity against the traditional pro-style schemes.
If there's one thing to conclude about Wisconsin's defense, it is that they are seasoned and salty. Led by All-Big 10 outside linebacker Vince Beigel (56 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, two quarterback hurries and four passes broken up), the Badgers have a veteran presence at nearly every position. Biegel is a versatile linebacker who was asked in 2014 to play not only play the traditional run-forcing, pass-rushing role from the end (as versus OSU), but was used as a de facto defensive end playing over tackle against Auburn. The 6'4", 241 pound senior has the length to successfully handle B-gap duties, and he is effective at tying up offensive linemen when playing over tackle, leaving his defensive backs and inside linebackers clean to fill gaps. Beigel and fellow OLB Joe Schobert (69 tackles, 13.5 tfls, 3 sacks) will be key to the success of the Badger defense against the run.
At inside linebacker, though there is a drop-off in experience, there is immense talent (if only in the first-string). Junior Leon Jacobs (28 tackles, two tfls, 1.5 sacks) will be joined by freshman T.J. Edwards. The 6'1", 229 pound Edwards was a steal for the Wisconsin staff after they lured him away from Western Michigan, and in the Badgers' spring camp, Edwards shined, recording three interceptions and three sacks in scrimmages. Expect to hear is name called often throughout 2015, even if the young ILB will get a trial-by-fire against the Bama run game to start the season.
The Badgers have a thin corps of defensive linemen upon whom they can call, led by presumed starters Arthur Goldberg (Junior, 25 tackles, 1.5 tfls, 0.5 sacks) and Chikwe Obasih (sophomore, 21 tackles, 2.5 tfls, 1.5 sacks). Unseasoned sophomore Conor Sheehy (2 tackles, 1 tfls) is expected to get the start at nose in Aranda's 3-4 base scheme. Behind those three, the Badgers are likely to rotate in guys like sophomore Alec James (8 tackles, 1.5 tfls) and senior Jake Keefer (8 tackles, 1 tfl). Beyond those two, the Badgers don't have much veteran experience, so they will count on the offense to keep that handful of linemen fresh on the sideline.
The secondary is solid, with talent, star power and experience. Junior Soujourn Shelton (33 tackles, 1 tfls, 6 pbus) could be the Big 10's best all-around defensive back in 2015, and he will be joined by fellow veteran and senior Darius Hillary (41 tackles, 3 tfls, 5 pbus). Together, the tandem will provide consistently good coverage in a system that requires that they play a good deal of man against spread teams and cover 1 versus pro-style attacks.
Senior Michael Caputo (106 tackles, 1 interception, 6 tfls, 6 pbus, 1 sack) is another lynchpin at strong safety. Caputo is another of Wisconsin's versatile players who not only plays the traditional strong safety role, but is used as a "robber" safety in the middle field and as an outside linebacker at times versus spread running attacks. He is strong in coverage and against the run is likely the Badgers' best tackler. Caputo is critical to the success of the Badger defense, as his play is a barometer for how the Wisky defense will fare versus Alabama.
While junior Leo Musso (11 tackles) was listed at free safety on the Badgers most recent depth chart, expect to see freak athlete Tanner McEvoy on both sides of the ball. The same depth chart listed the 6'6", 220 pound senior at wide receiver, and he was originally recruited to Wisconsin as a quarterback. Will McEvoy play safety, wide receiver or wildcat quarterback against Alabama? The answer is...yes. McEvoy is the fastest player on the Badger roster, and his talent is great enough that head coach Paul Chryst can't afford to have him off the field for very long. McEvoy was key to the Badger defense that stopped Auburn in the post-season last year, so he has experience defending versus SEC talent.
How Wisconsin can stop Alabama
Wisconsin's defense, like Nick Saban's earlier Alabama teams, was previously built with old school, smash-mouth football in mind. Until recently, the Big 10 saw the type of offenses that once dominated the SEC, and coaches followed suit with big-bodied, powerful defenses. Like Alabama, the advent of the spread offense has led to a shift in philosophy. Wisconsin had to maintain its ability to play pro-style offenses typical of Big 10 football, but the Badgers also had to be ready to shift on a dime and handle spread offenses like the one Urban Meyer has installed at Ohio State.
As in the case of Alabama, part of adapting to new offenses involved utilizing smaller, more athletic defensive players up front, guys who could use speed, reach and quickness to negate the advantages inherent in the typical spread systems. Hence, the addition and re-shaping of versatile players such as Biegel, Caputo and McEvoy to confront the new offensive monster in college football. Saban has adapted by recruiting two sets of athletes: one big-bodied squad to face the LSUs and Georgias of the league, and a lighter, faster unit to deal with the likes of Texas A&M and Auburn. That said, Aranda took a different tack, building a defense at Wisconsin that uses those same players' qualities to stop pro-style defenses through scheme and deceit.
Look no further than last season, which, with similar personnel, one can expect will be similar to what the Badgers project in 2015. The Badgers were one of the best defenses in the nation through the bulk of their schedule, holding smash-mouth pro-style offenses in check en route to a top 20 defensive performance prior to the Big 10 Championship Game. Even after the slaughter at the hands of the Buckeyes, the Badger D still finished the season 7th in the nation defensively on passing downs, and 15th overall in S&P.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, the Badgers' failure in the Big10CG was not a personnel issue, but rather a schematic issue. Against OSU, Aranda and company expected to see more of what the Buckeyes had displayed all year: namely a spread attack with a heavy quarterback run quotient. Aranda planned to overload the middle by bringing the free safety into the box while allowing the OLB's to force the run inside, trusting man coverage on the OSU receivers and keeping the strong safety in the middle of the field to cut off short routes and screens. Badger shifted from their 3-4 base to a complex 2-4-5 that required linebackers to read gaps as they were created and choose the correct one in a split second.
But Meyer and his OC Tom Herman flipped the script, so to speak. Where the Badgers planned to load the middle of the field while allowing the talented OLB's to force the QB option run inside, the Buckeyes nearly eliminated the quarterback run from their repertoire, relying instead on shifty tailbacks to shred the Badger zone in the running game and leverage space left in the front. They then took advantage of Wisconsin's man coverage early, flooding the Wisky secondary with a corps of talented and effective wide receivers and using the play action game to victimize the defensive backs.
Fast forward to the 2015 Outback Bowl, where the Badgers faced a similar spread attack from Auburn. Aranda went with the same 2-4-5 alignment, but he simplified the reads for his linebackers by having one (Biegel, in this case) line up over tackle as a de facto defensive end. Instead of using three corners, he opted for three safeties, and let the nickel and the remaining OLB force the run inside. The two corners kept their assignments in front of them with the free safety dropping deep to provide over-the-top help. The strong safety covered the Y and provided run support. Though Wisconsin played a seven man front as opposed to the eight man front they had played against the Buckeyes, they were able to tighten the spaces and fill the gaps more efficiently, limiting Auburn's opportunity to strike with big plays in the running game.
That said, Alabama doesn't run a pure spread offense. While offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has incorporated some spread concepts into the Alabama playbook, the Tide remains, by in large, a mostly pro-style offense that features the run and the play-action pass. With a yet-to-be-determined newcomer under center (and possibly a rotation of newcomers under center), Wisconsin will hedge its bets with an aggressive, attacking anti-run campaign. Though Bama will pick its spots to strike for big plays, expect the quarterback to assume the mantle of "game manager" early on in the season, which means the offense will be run-heavy with a complement of short, safe passing plays in the slot coupled with screens.
This type of offense plays to Wisconsin's strengths in many ways, allowing the Badger defensive backs to play man with some degree of confidence give the green nature of whatever Bama quarterback takes the reigns. With the Tide relying on the running of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, the Badgers will likely load the middle of the field by providing a seven man front with a safety dropped into the box for good measure. Against the pounding, straight-line momentum of Henry, this could be especially effective in controlling the Tide running attack. Henry has displayed in past years a need to build a head of steam before contact, and Wisconsin's crafty, athletic front seven will chip at Henry and keep him from getting to full speed prior to contact.
When Drake is on the field, however, expect Wisconsin to shift to a tactic similar to the one they used against Auburn. Drake is well known for his speed, quickness and ability to shift and bounce outside while his wide receivers block downfield. Wisconsin will likely rely on Caputo or McEvoy on such plays to slash towards the line and get the angle on Drake, a feat which is much easier said than done. McEvoy has the speed and length to make at happen, but again, with an elite athlete like Drake on the field, nothing is guaranteed.
While Wisconsin logically has little to fear from the Tide passing game at this point, one must expect Kiffin to develop some innovative ways of helping out his quarterbacks. After all, given standard of offensive balance (and the running back attrition of recent years), it is doubtful Alabama will run the ball on more than 55% of total plays. That will leave a green quarterback facing down a veteran secondary which is aggressive in ball-hawking. When Bama lines up in its standard three-receiver set, expect the Badgers to go nickel (likely two corners and three safeties). With O.J. Howard on the field, Alabama has the ability to take advantage of such a tactic...but only if the quarterback can accurately and confidently deliver the ball over the middle.
When Alabama is in an obvious passing situation, expect to see the crafty Caputo go into "robber" mode, taking away the dangerous routes in the middle of the field and forcing the quarterback to either take a risky shot against the excellent Badger corners, or tuck it and run.
Bama quarterbacks will also have to be quick in decision-making, as Wisconsin gets after the passer. The Badgers were ranked 31st in the nation last year in sacks with 37, so the new Tide field general won't have much time to think about his options before acting. With Biegel and Schobert are terrors in pass rush, and depending on how they are utilized by Aranda against Alabama, their presence could factor into the outcome heavily.
Wisconsin's defense is definitely the strength of the team, and the Badgers field more than a few SEC caliber athletes on their roster. The defense has seasoning at key positions, such as in the secondary and at the outside linebacker positions, which are critical to Aranda's schemes. They are big enough, fast enough, and heady enough to limit Alabama's offensive production, especially with the aforementioned uncertainty at quarterback limiting Alabama's playbook somewhat.
Wisconsin's strength in the front seven also plays well against Bama's lead running back in Henry. As stated previously, Henry needs a few steps to get into gear, and if the Badgers can snarl up the running lanes and nick Henry enough to keep him from reaching full speed, his effectiveness will be limited. Sure, he'll get his yards, but his potential for home run plays will be diminished.
Bama's critical offensive components against the Badger defense will come in the form of Drake and Howard. Drake is an athlete who can line up in the back field or in the slot. He can make opponents pay for their aggressiveness up front with the screen or short pass in the short center of the field, two high-percentage plays that will help the quarterback build confidence. Given the Badgers' propensity for crashing the box and clogging the lanes in the middle, Drake's elusiveness will allow him to avoid the run-forcing outside linebackers, and if he can bounce outside, he will need only to beat a safety to get into space, where the real magic happens.
With his size and speed, Howard could make an impact over the middle. Again, his steady hands and size make him an easy and productive target for a new quarterback. Wisconsin could negate the size and speed advantage by spying Howard with an athlete of similar caliber, namely McEvoy. But Aranda would have to sell out on his scheme to dedicate a player like McEvoy to one offensive player, and doing so would limit the Badgers' leverage on other parts of the field.
The one thing that the Badger defense does not have much of, especially in the front seven, is quality depth. This will take its toll as the game wears on. If Wisconsin is able to effectively corral the Tide run game early, expect that dynamic to wane as the game plays on. Alabama's offensive line should be formidable, and they are indeed massive. Wisconsin's somewhat undersized line will tire, especially given the lack of depth. Eventually, those tightened running lanes will begin to spread, giving Henry and Drake more room to make things happen.
Wisconsin's defense is too good to flounder early, but in the third and fourth quarters, expect them to wear down and the Tide to rise.