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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Henson: Badger defense much improved

Coming into the 2009 college football season, we all knew the Badgers were going to look a lot different, especially on defense.

Returning only two starters in the front seven, critics were quick to say that the Badger defense would be weaker than last year’s version, with some so-called experts (Mark May) suggesting the Badgers would finish at the bottom of the conference. Multi-year starters like Jonathan Casillas, DeAndre Levy and Matt Shaughnessy graduated, leaving head coach Bret Bielema with a lot of inexperience on the defensive side of the ball.

So we wondered how this new-look Badger defense would play against Northern Illinois and we really did not know what to expect. Could the 2009 edition of the Badger defense possibly be an improvement over the experienced unit that took the field last season?


The answer to that question is yes.

Now it is only week one, and I know Saturday’s win was against a MAC opponent, but the Wisconsin coaching staff made some serious changes to their defensive philosophy and it is already paying off. By using a rotation in the front seven, the Badgers are getting the most out of their players and they are keeping them fresh. Last season, there was no semblance of a rotation and it hurt UW, especially in late-game situations.

Take last year’s defensive line for instance.

Mike Newkirk and Jason Chapman were the only two defensive tackles the coaching staff trusted, and they were the only ones that got significant playing time. By the fourth quarter of games, the undersized-Newkirk and the injury-riddled Chapman were worn down and it showed.

Shaughnessy, who was battling a leg injury last season, played almost every snap at defensive end and he just didn’t have the burst we were used to seeing. Unfortunately, there was no one on the Badgers’ bench the coaches felt comfortable plugging in to give these guys a breather. As a result, the defense didn’t exactly excel at the end of games.

Now take a look at this year’s defensive line.

O’Brien Schofield, the lone returning starter, leads a rotation of about eight players. J.J Watt, Anthony Mains, Dan Moore, Patrick Butrym and Jeff Stehle all saw action against NIU, and that doesn’t even include two injured defensive ends that are expected to contribute.

New faces are finally beginning to show they are ready for game action and the coaches are going to give it to them. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge now has the eight-man rotation he wanted, and that will keep his unit playing fast for four quarters –something this team couldn’t say last season.

The defensive line certainly benefited from the depth we have seen develop, but that is not the only unit that utilized a constant rotation on Saturday. Several young linebackers have impressed throughout fall camp and the coaching staff is prepared to play a number of guys at the position.

Last season, it was Casillas and Levy who were counted on to play every single down and the staff was forced to move Jaevery McFadden to the mike linebacker position. Casillas played the 2009 season with a bulky brace on his knee that limited his great speed, but he was the only option the coaches felt they had.

That is not the case this time around.

McFadden is back to his natural outside position with Culmer St. Jean manning the middle. The explosive freshman, Mike Taylor, is the other starting linebacker, and he showed why he is on the field with a number of great plays on Saturday.

But these guys will not be counted on to play every snap since there are teammates behind them who have shown the ability to make plays of their own. Blake Sorensen saw significant action and got himself a sack, and true freshman Chris Borland was an absolute beast on special teams and he was also brought in on third downs due to his blitzing ability off the edge.

Quite simply, the coaches are finding ways to get more talent on the field.

As great as it is to have all this depth, a single-possession victory over Northern Illinois doesn’t seem all that impressive at first glance. But don’t be misguided by the final score; this defense played well.

Yes, the Badgers gave up 20 points, but UW was the victim of a horrible forward progress call by the refs that took away Schofield’s forced fumble and subsequent fumble recovery. If that play is called correctly, you can take an NIU touchdown off the scoreboard.

But despite that, there is one stat in particular that really stood out. The Huskies went just 3-for-12 on third downs. The Badger defense could never get off the field last year, something coaches wanted to see change in the season opener.

So UW was better on third downs and utilized some much-needed depth, but there was a single play in the win over NIU that showed the most improvement from last year. Chris Maragos’ game-sealing pass breakup reminded Badger fans that this team can hold on and get a victory they deserve, despite a late-game momentum turn.

I’ll be the first to say the fourth quarter this past Saturday was a forgettable one for the Badgers and, while the mental lapses and foolish penalties are unacceptable, this defense finally stepped up and made a play when it mattered most.

This game didn’t go into overtime like last year’s adventure against Cal Poly. This game didn’t end in heartbreak like last year’s catastrophic meltdown in Ann Arbor. This game didn’t end like last year’s loss to the Buckeyes where the defense was so confused it let Terrelle Pryor waltz into the end zone for the game-clinching score. This game ended with a defensive stand and a Badger win.

After a perfect onside kick, the Huskies took the field and lined up against a Badger defense that was still fresh, a defense that was prepared to stop them. And with a group this young and inexperienced, I believe the best is still yet to come.

Above all else, this coaching staff needed to make some serious changes after the mess they made last year. Well, they have certainly done that, and this defense looks much improved because of it.

Max is a junior majoring in journalism. Do you agree that the Badgers’ defense looked improved last Saturday? E-mail him at [email protected].

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