It was 2nd and 2; Indiana wasn’t having a great day, but the run was working. From his own 33-yard line, IU running back Stephen Houston saw UW linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland shift inside. Houston bounced outside and took it down the Indiana sideline 67 yards and into end zone for his team’s lone score of the day.
The Wisconsin defense gave up 223 rushing yards against Indiana – the most it’s given up all year – largely as a result of a miscommunication on defense that led to the 67-yard touchdown.
If there’s one aspect lagging behind for the Badgers, it’s the run defense.
While it’s ranked No. 7 nationally for total defense, Wisconsin drops to No. 42 in stopping the run.
“If every guy is accountable and does a good job with the communication part of things and keeps getting better, then we’ll be in great shape,” co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Charlie Partridge said.
When it comes to stopping the run, communication is the key.
This season, the Badgers have given up a total of 739 rushing yards. For only six games, it’s not a horrible mark, but Partridge believes his defense needs to clean some things up.
“I think the biggest thing is we had a communication error which accounted for about 70 yards,” Partridge said. “There was a new series of plays that they came in with, a couple times for about 20 yards a pop. It’s really just cleaning things up and doing our job and executing, then we’ll be fine.”
While these changes can come as a unit, defensive tackle Ethan Hemer believes the improvements need to come individually.
So far this season, the current starting defensive line has a total of 52 tackles. Starting linebacker Chris Borland has 58 tackles to his name in the same span of time.
“I think what it boils down to is every man taking care of their job,” Hemer said. “As a whole, defensively, we’re just going to do what we do every week and everything is going to be fine. It just comes down to getting off the blocks and making plays.
“Schematically, we feel very good about what we have set up; it’s all about winning the one-on-one battles.”
As it voyages to East Lansing for the second year in a row, the defense faces some sizable Michigan State running backs.
Edwin Baker – 88 rushing attempts for 419 yards and two touchdowns – and Le’Veon Bell – 59 rushing attempts for a 287 yards and six touchdowns – lead the Spartans run game.
The stats aren’t stunningly impressive, but the 6-foot-2, 237-pound Bell and 5-foot-9, 210-pound Baker can make a bruising.
“They are bigger than a lot of guys we’ve faced,” Borland said. “They run really hard. These are top caliber guys, some of the best of the Big Ten running backs there, some of the best guys in the nation. They’re fast, physical, make the right cuts and reads. They’re hard to bring down, so it’s going to be a challenge for our defense.”
They may be hard to bring down, but the defense is confident in its ability to contain the run game.
“Michigan State has fantastic running backs,” Hemer said. “We’re definitely aware of their talent, their speed, their size, but I would say that we feel very confident in our ability to contain the run. We’re not going to let their size or anything like that intimidate us and hold us back from a great game.”
Baker and Bell are a big duo, but the defense feels it’s faced this type of backfield threat before.
“They run really hard, so you need to tackle them very well,” defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. “A lot like Rex Burkhead from Nebraska. You need to tackle well.”
The Badgers held Nebraska to 159 rushing yards. Burkhead only gained 96 yards and one touchdown, a less-than-average performance for the 5-foot-11, 210-pound running back.
UW’s strong performance against Burkhead bodes well for the run defense, as both Butrym and Borland feel Burkhead was good preparation for MSU’s backfield duo.
“[Burkhead's] a heck of a player,” Borland said. “He’s in a similar mold for Baker and Bell; the only difference is Michigan State has a little more depth. I felt like Rex, at times, had to shoulder the whole load for Nebraska, but Michigan State can throw four guys at you. We’ll be ready for them.”
Indiana’s 67-yard sprint came a drive after Butrym left the game with a left ankle sprain. The Badgers’ defense has seen four players miss starts due to injuries.
Butrym is expected to play Saturday, but regardless, Wisconsin is satisfied with its depth, confident that the next guy is always prepped to step in when needed.
“When you’ve got a lot of guys getting in there to play, there’s not a lot of drop off with twos,” Butrym said. “That’s never a concern of ours; we’ve got a lot of guys that can play.”
The run game is an essential part of football, and stopping the run is never the easiest thing. But if Wisconsin wants to keep up its invincible juggernaut front, the run defense cannot have many more miscommunications – especially against teams like Michigan State.
Partidge trusts his team has learned from its mistake. Now it’s a small matter of getting everyone to the ball.
“The biggest thing we need to do is get everybody to the ball,” Partridge said. “We know that one guy, one-on-one tackling – they’re special running backs, and we’ve got to get all eleven guys to the ball every chance we get.”