In the strangest of seasons, one where the Badgers still have a clear shot at the Rose Bowl with three losses to their name, an unfamiliar unit has acted as the reparative glue for this team: the defense.
It is a complete reversal of scripts from the 2011 season, when one of the best offenses in Wisconsin history amassed 44.1 points per game behind the ever-accurate arm and quick legs of one Russell Wilson. Four times last year the offense managed more than 50 points in 60 minutes of play, contests that were often over by halftime.
With running back Montee Ball exploding out of the backfield and helping Wilson orchestrate the play-action pass with greater harmony than the New York Philharmonic, the offense could best be christened unstoppable.
Though solid for much of the year, UW’s defense often turned into its greatest liability in 2011. Case in point: the Big Ten Championship game, when a shaky Badger secondary allowed Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins to spread the ball around the field for 281 yards and three touchdowns. The defensive unit often did just what it needed to — and nothing more — to protect the lead built by an offense loaded with firepower.
A year later, there are gaping holes in Wisconsin’s offense — an issue that starts with replacing the one-and-done legend at quarterback. Wisconsin’s offense is averaging all of 25.9 points per game and ranks 16th nationally in total defense, surrendering 311.3 yards per game. The numbers don’t separate themselves from those of a year ago, when the Badgers held the opposition to 19 points and 316.4 yards per game.
Yet the numbers simply don’t do it justice.
Moreso than in the rout-filled 2010 and 2011 seasons, the ones that left fans expecting a third consecutive trip to Pasadena Jan. 1, 2013, the defense is conditioned to protecting a sensitive lead late in any game. In six of Wisconsin’s nine games this season, the defense has been assigned the task of coming up with critical stops in the fourth quarter to secure victory. The Badgers took down each of their first three opponents by less than a single touchdown margin, with a key three-and-out keeping the opposing offense short of a game-winning drive.
In 2011, only four times did the Badgers play in a game that ended with a single score separating them from their opponents — and two of those ended in defeat to Michigan State and Ohio State.
The defensive line, powered by golden-haired mammoth defensive tackle Beau Allen and the man lining up next to him, Ethan Hemer, is the oft-unrecognized centerpiece of UW’s defense. They clog up the running holes along the line and, with the help of the defensive ends, force enough pressure on the quarterback to open up plays for their teammates downfield.
But without question the most marked improvement has come in the secondary. The last line of defense has not been without its costly errors (see Hillary, Darius, face-guarding in the red zone). And cornerback Marcus Cromartie continues to spend much of his time on the field looking befuddled and appearing as if he’s playing two-hand touch football.
However, free safety Dezmen Southward, along with cornerback Devin Smith, have anchored a unit that has made up for its lack of interceptions with critical pass breakups. For years the secondary has been a steady source of criticism for Wisconsin fans, giving opposing receivers frustrating cushions on obvious passing downs.
But Southward’s athleticism and Smith’s experience have allowed the Badgers to come up with the crucial third-and-long stops that were one of the few missing pieces of the team Wilson led.
And backing them up is the energetic duo of linebackers the rest of the defense feeds off— Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. At certain times this season, Borland has looked more rabid animal than football player. His uncanny ability to fly to the ball has disrupted countless drives this year and as the middle linebacker, he is often responsible for making pre-snap adjustments and guiding the entire defense.
Taylor, aside from the “what’s a wheel route?” moments that handed opposing offenses a few touchdowns earlier this year, has continued to impress with a team-high 92 tackles and 11 tackles for a loss.
Overshadowed by questions surrounding the starting quarterback and the sluggish start to Ball’s Heisman campaign early in the year, it’s downright frightening to consider where this team would be without its rock solid defense. The Badgers’ offensive futility has more than left its mark this year (read: seven points in four quarters against Oregon State). If that lack of production were paired up with a volatile defense, UW would be lucky to make any bowl game, the Rose Bowl a hallucinogenic dream.
Any informed Badgers fan more than recognizes that late game slides allowed Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Michigan State’s Andrew Maxwell to lead game-winning drives in the final quarter. The man in charge recognizes that, too.
“These guys are going to get better. I think our defense is good this year, but hopefully [they] are the stepping stones for something better next year,” head coach Bret Bielema said Monday. “Closing out games would probably be the No. 1 thing.”
So as we narrow our eyes with skepticism on whoever ends up starting at quarterback and recoil in disappointment when Ball hits a brick wall at the line of scrimmage, consider how much worse this could be. Because this year, defense may be the one and only way to Wisconsin winning a (Big Ten) championship.