Leonhard unleashes UW defense on quarterbacks
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Linebacker T.J. Edwards needed only 14 words to explain the attitude of Wisconsin's defense.
“I just think we are a defense that loves to get after the quarterback,” Edwards said.
Clayton Thorson concurs. UW sacked the Northwestern quarterback eight times last week in a 33-24 victory over the Wildcats and intercepted two of his passes.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley, whose team hosts No. 8 UW (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) at 7 p.m. Saturday, has seen the hit parade on video. He knows the Badgers enter the game No. 2 in the Big Ten in sacks with 16.
“They're hard to run against and they rush the quarterback well,” said Riley, whose team is 2-0 in the Big Ten and 3-2 overall. “We're going to have to find our balance and be real good in those areas.
“We're going to have to protect the quarterback and we're going to have to run the ball.”
UW limited Northwestern running backs to 67 yards on 20 carries, 3.4 yards per carry, and overwhelmed the Wildcats' offensive line.
Thorson was sacked twice on first down, twice on second down and four times on third down.
UW rushed just four men on six of the sacks, five men on one sack and six on one sack.
“It was really just a four-man rush and those guys were just winning,” said inside linebacker Chris Orr, who recorded the sack with six rushers. “I think we have some exotic pressures in our hip pocket. And we haven't shown any of the new stuff we have. Guys are just winning. They were just flat-out winning.”
Nebraska has allowed only nine sacks in five games, an average of 1.8 per game. The Cornhuskers have a solid running game at 156.2 yards per game but could be without their top two tailbacks on Saturday.
Quarterback Tanner Lee isn't a threat to run and has a penchant for forcing throws into coverage, particularly when pressured. He has almost as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes. Three of his interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.
“He is pass-first,” said Edwards, mindful Nebraska had a dual-threat quarterback in Tommy Armstrong in 2015 and '16. “It is a completely different game plan from Armstrong to Lee.
“When he has time, he can really hurt you.”
Don't be surprised to see UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard utilize a similar plan this week against Lee.
Linebackers executed stunts on some of the sacks against Northwestern, as did linemen.
With Northwestern trailing, 14-10, and facing third and 10 from its 37 in the third quarter, UW lined up in a four-man front but rushed six.
Outside linebacker Garret Dooley and inside linebacker Ryan Connelly ran a stunt between the tackles and occupied three blockers. Orr came on a delayed blitz through the lane created by the stunt and dropped Thorson for an 8-yard loss.
Safety Natrell Jamerson recorded a sack with a well-timed blitz over the right side of Northwestern's formation. UW had seven players on the line of scrimmage before the snap but Edwards and outside linebacker Leon Jacobs dropped into coverage after the snap, which left five rushers.
Safety D'Cota Dixon came free on a blitz from the slot on another play and combined with Dooley on a sack.
“I just think our guys were so active,” Edwards said. “There were a bunch of energy plays with guys not giving up on the back side and still finishing their rushes and getting to the quarterback.
“It was a credit to the DBs as well for covering their guys for long enough to make the quarterback hold the ball a little longer.”
For most of the game, Dooley and Jacobs ran through or around blockers to help collapse the pocket.
“I think when the pocket is being collapsed and the quarterback is being pressured it throws their timing off,” said Dooley, who had 3 ½ of the eight sacks. “And that's why we were able to get a couple turnovers.
“He (Thorson) can move. But I think everyone did a good job of compressing those running lanes, so when he did try to escape everyone was able to come off and get him.”
UW's final sack came when Dixon dropped Thorson in the end zone for a safety in the final minute.
Although it may have appeared that Dixon executed a delayed blitz, he had coverage in the flat but attacked the line of scrimmage when he saw tailback Justin Jackson stay in to block and Thorson roll to the right.
“I was running next to him,” Edwards said. “We were in coverage and I was wondering: 'Where…is…D'Cota…going?”
To sack the quarterback, of course.