Considering the strong play of his linebackers this season, perhaps it’s good that Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema is getting them confused.
In his weekly press conference Monday, Bielema mistakenly named Mike Taylor the defensive most valuable player for the week. Later, however, he realized he had given the award to linebacker Ethan Armstrong. Regardless, Bielema noted that the group has excelled this season.
“They are very fast, but they are very intelligent,” Bielema said. “They’ve all had three linebacker coaches in three years … they’ve adapted to that … [coaches] talk about their football IQ.”
The group notched 32 total tackles in last Saturday’s matchup against Illinois with 10 each coming from Ethan Armstrong and Chris Borland and 12 more from Mike Taylor.
“I coached linebackers my entire coaching career, have been a head coach and a coordinator and I can’t remember watching a game or seeing anything like that,” Bielema said. “Hats off to those three guys and what they did.”
At the same time, the defensive line was pivotal in maintaining gap assignment and making plays out of the basic alignments, Bielema said. Along with the linebackers, the defensive line stood out with six tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a quarterback hurry.
“Those guys occupy blockers for the most part; our defensive line stays in appropriate gaps and plays the techniques that the linebackers are expecting them to play,” Bielema said. “So the ball gets funneled, that way the linebackers can scrap and make plays.”
The head coach noted the return of defensive ends Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon from injury Saturday bolstered the depth for the unit. Kelly recorded two and a half tackles for loss and one sack, and Muldoon also recovered a fumble.
Bielema said his team was healthier than it had been in three or four weeks and felt that it provided a significant boost against the Fighting Illini.
“I think that made a huge difference, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Bielema said. “Getting Brendan Kelly and Pat Muldoon back on defense was huge, especially in the fourth quarter when we needed pressure on the quarterback.”
Along with Kelly and Muldoon, safety Shelton Johnson returned Saturday, and Bielema expects defensive back Peniel Jean to return this week against Purdue.
The coach commended the play of Johnson, who took just four weeks to get back on the field after breaking his arm against Oregon State and lauded free safety Dezmen Southward for stepping into a leadership role in Johnson’s absence.
“Shelton… for two years has commanded back there,” Bielema said. “I will give credit to Dezmen Southward, I thought he made a huge jump during [Shelton's] absence. … Dezmen probably got better in the last three games than any previous three-game stretch he’s been involved with. That was a great experience.”
The head coach also mentioned wide receiver Jared Abbrederis’ continuing production, his third-consecutive game with at least 100 receiving yards.
Abbrederis had seven receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown against Illinois. He also replaced Kenzel Doe on punt returns in the second half, returning to the spot where he finished ninth nationally in yards per return last year and gained 29 yards on two punt returns.
He noted Abbrederis’ diverse presence on the field, as the junior contributed in several different areas.
“Obviously, the touchdowns and the long strikes are huge,” Bielema said. “He was a key factor and a key block on the James White touchdown, a key block on several running plays for James … that kid is an incredible football player and deserves all the recognition he’s getting.”
Bielema cited Abbrederis’ ability to soften the defense, which in turn allows the run game to thrive.
“When Abby [Jared Abbrederis] wasn’t in there, I think the vertical threat of our passing game was not as prevalent as we’d like and that was what allowed those teams really to hunker down in there and not be as open in the run game as we would like,” Bielema said.
Bielema said he has been impressed with what he has seen from his offensive unit in the last three games – or since Abbrederis’ return from a concussion against UTEP. Particularly, he noted the greater efficiency in the red zone and inside the opponent’s 50-yard line.
“The production of our run game and our offensive production per play and in the red zone … any time we’re taking the ball on our side of the 50, we’ve had seven out of nine as touchdowns, Bielema said. “Those are things that we’re used to.”
One thing Badger fans aren’t used to, however, is the shuffling of quarterbacks. Curt Phillips came in for a series against Illinois – his first live game experience since 2009 – but Bielema said to expect to see similar sets with Phillips in certain situations, especially in light of Michigan’s 44-13 victory over Purdue Saturday.
Bielema said he thinks Phillips can mimic some of the spread offensive looks that Michigan successfully used last week with dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson.
“[It's] a package we feel strongly about,” Bielema said. “You saw what Michigan was able to do against Purdue in the spread look, so it’s something that we [will] definitely explore and hopefully continue to build.”