UW hopes to build on Saturday's defensive performance
As he prepared to face Northwestern, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda noted mistakes made in the loss to Ohio State would be identified by future opponents and those perceived areas of vulnerability would be attacked.
Three days after sharing his thoughts with reporters, Aranda saw the UW defense give future opponents more to think about with its best overall performance this season against a quality offense by shutting down Northwestern in a 35-6 victory.
After UW limited Northwestern to 241 yards and 10 first downs, senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong was asked to share the expectations for the defense for the remainder of the season.
Armstrong smiled and said:
“To be the best defense in the Big Ten now. That is what we’ve got to do.
“I think we can. And we’ve just got to go out and prove it every game now. It’s got to be a consistent thing. We can’t fall off.
“Because the great defenses don’t.”
Whether UW’s first defense under Aranda will ultimately be viewed in that light is to be determined.
The Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten), who moved into The Associated Press poll at No. 25 Sunday, enter the week fifth nationally in scoring defense (13.2 ppg) and total defense (267.3 ypg).
Whether UW can maintain that pace over its final six regular-season games, beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday at Illinois (3-2, 0-1), is to be determined.
What is clear is that Aranda and the rest of the defensive staff are finding ways to use a plethora of players, even if some of the roles are small.
More than two dozen players got time on defense in the victory over Northwestern. Seven players recorded one sack.
Four came from the linebackers—Chris Borland, Armstrong, Vince Biegel and Conor O’Neill. Two came from the line—end Pat Muldoon and nose guard Beau Allen. One came from the secondary—reserve safety Nate Hammon, who didn’t play defense at Milton High School.
“We’ve had to develop some depth, which has taken time,” Borland said. “But I think it is starting to show. We’ve got good pass-rushers who aren’t necessarily starters and some good guys in the back end.”
To better defend Northwestern’s spread attack, Aranda opened with three safeties in a 3-3-5 scheme. Free safety Michael Caputo lined up as an outside linebacker, as he did at Ohio State.
Tanner McEvoy, who started out at quarterback and then moved briefly to wide receiver, replaced Caputo at free safety and teamed with strong safety Dezmen Southward in the back end.
McEvoy, 6-foot-6 and 223 pounds, missed one chance to close on a receiver on a throw over the middle but recorded four tackles and appears more comfortable at his new position.
“He’s a serious presence in the middle of the field,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “I’m really proud of that kid. You want to talk about just finding a way to get on the field.”
In obvious passing situations, Aranda used linebackers Brendan Kelly and Biegel as rush ends.
Biegel had four total tackles. Kelly didn’t record a tackle but batted down one pass after coming free on a stunt and recorded a quarterback hurry.
“Me and Brendan wanted to get after the passer,” Biegel said.
UW suffered one glaring coverage breakdown, when cornerback Darius Hillary allowed a wide receiver to get behind him for a 46-yard gain late in the first half.
When Hillary was shaken up in the fourth quarter, the staff brought in freshman Jakarrie Washington. That meant the Badgers had two freshman cornerbacks in the game—Washington and Sojourn Shelton.
Andersen noted afterward he would like to develop a package that features four cornerbacks. The development of Washington could be critical for that to happen.
“We’ll continue to work as a defensive staff to put the best kids in the best position as they can possibly be in to make a play,” Andersen said. “That doesn’t come without acceptance now from those kids of understanding the different schemes, and I appreciate them in understanding their role and where they’re going to go with it.”
Southward, who touted the potential of the defense UW before the first game, was tired but satisfied after the victory over Northwestern.
“That is the defense that we are,” he said. “That is the defense we were planning to be at the beginning of the season. And I’m pretty damn sure that’s who we’re going to be from here on out.”