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With a depleted corps of tailbacks and inconsistent quarterback play, the Wisconsin Badgers (4-0) have been ever reliant on their defense during their perfect start in the 2004 campaign.
Led by a dominant front four and featuring experience at key positions, the Badger defense has yet to give up more than seven points a game this season. Last weekend, the unit limited Penn State to just 157 yards of total offense. It’s been a dominant start, but is it too early to call them dominant?
“I’m not ready to put that stamp on them yet,” Alvarez said Monday. “They’re playing solid. They’re playing fast. They played very physical Saturday. And they’re doing what we’ve asked them to do and they’re playing with a lot of pride, don’t want to let anyone in the end zone. But I still believe it’s too early with that standpoint.”
It might be too early for Alvarez to make such an assessment, but the unit has certainly exceeded expectations and has kept the Badgers in games this season. The defense is also quickly making a name for itself as a physical unit capable of delivering big hits. Against Penn State, senior defensive end Erasmus James single-handedly knocked out two Nittany Lion quarterbacks. Linebacker Mark Zalewski has recorded three sacks this season and has shown a nose for the quarterback on blitz packages.
After the Penn State game, defensive coordinator Bret Bielema recorded 11 big hits on just 55 plays for the defense when compiling their weekly big hit tape.
“That’s a pretty high percentage,” Alvarez said. “There were some in the secondary. There were some by the linebackers. Jonathan Welsh had just an unbelievable play where he hurdled a blocker and hit the quarterback just as he released the ball. There was Erasmus (James). The effect that it has on a team watching film, they anticipate it being a physical game. And, you know, I don’t know what other effect it has, but, you know, I think they come in ready for a physical game.”
James, in large part, has put the defense on the national radar this season, overshadowing All-American candidate Anttaj Hawthorne while being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week in back-to-back weeks after earning the honor Monday for his five-tackle, two-sack performance against Penn State.
“That in itself is pretty impressive,” Alvarez said of James’ awards. “And it’s very deserved. He really chases it down. He plays hard and makes plays. He’s made plays every week … after watching him in two-a-days (this fall) I certainly felt that he was capable of that type of play because we had a hard time blocking him, and the additional weight and strength that he’s put on in the past year has really made him special. But you still have to see it carried over to a game, so I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’m certainly pleased.”
With playmakers like James on the field, the Badger defense has the ability to notch a place in the long line of great Badger defenses in the Alvarez era. At the top of the list, Alvarez leaves his highest regard for his 1999 Rose Bowl unit, highlighted by senior defensive end Tom Burke.
“There was no weakness on that defense,” Alvarez said. “You probably had nine of those guys ended up making it in the NFL. Many of them were high picks. That was just a good defense, very athletic, very physical.”