Wisconsin’s young defense from 2011 finally came into its own in 2012, helping to propel the team to the Rose Bowl with its consistent, physical play.
Even though both co-defensive coordinators, Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge, will be leaving next season for Arkansas, both left their mark in their final year at UW.
At the conclusion of the regular season, Wisconsin ranked 19th nationally in scoring defense (19.1 points allowed per game) and 13th in scoring defense (320.9 yards per game), serving as the one constant for the program during a 2012 season that saw the offense take several games to find a rhthym.
A total of nine Badgers on defense earned All-Big Ten honors in 2012, led by redshirt senior linebacker Mike Taylor’s first team nod from the media and redshirt junior middle linebacker Chris Borland’s first team honor from the coaches.
“We felt like we had a chip on our shoulder (this season) and something to prove,” second team All-Big Ten senior cornerback Devin Smtih, who recorded four interceptions in 2012. “I think that helped us play with an edge.”
The linebacker trio of Borland, Taylor and Ethan Armstrong served as perhaps the most consistent group at the position in the country, as the three combined for 320 tackles. And perhaps nobody out of the linebackers was more consistent than Mike Taylor, who recorded 123 tackles in 2012 to lead the team in his final season with the Badgers. No player in the entire FBS recorded more tackles in the past two years than Taylor, who racked up 273.
But, as always, the impact player of the year belonged to the uber-talented middle linebacker Borland. Besides having outstanding athleticism, instincts and strength, Borland provided the Badgers a pass rush off the edge when the team needed it most, recording 4.5 sacks while showing his knack for the ball, recovering three fumbles.
“I think we had a lot of guys with playing experience come back and had young guys step up into roles this season that didn’t play a lot last year,” Borland said. “It just has to do with experience, it was our second year in (defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s) system too, so we were a little more comfortable.”
The Badgers’ unsung heroes on defense belonged to their two starting defensive tackles, junior Beau Allen and redshirt junior Ethan Hemer. The two helped spearhead UW’s stout run defense in 2012, as the team entered the Rose Bowl ranked 21st nationally in defending the run, giving up just 124.5 yards per game.
The depth that Wisconsin had at defensive line was the strongest in recent memory, as the Badgers were able to go seven to eight deep in their rotation in the trenches. Defensive ends Brendan Kelly, David Gilbert, Pat Muldoon and Tyler Dippel combined for 16.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss. The best part for Wisconsin is the fact that it will lose no members of its rotation of defensive linemen in 2013.
But oddly, Wisconsin’s defense was terrific everywhere but the red zone this season. The team ranked in the bottom half of college football for making stops within their own 20 yard line, a statistical trend that reflected the defense’s struggle to close out games at the end, something that cost UW dearly down the stretch.
The team lost three games in overtime, as the defense gave up a touchdown in two of those extra period contests. There were second half collapses as well, as Wisconsin allowed teams like Nebraska and Michigan State comebacks in game’s that the Badgers led for almost the entirety. That failure to finish, or play consistent the entire four quarters, led to many close losses, as all of Wisconsin’s losses in the 2012 regular season came by an average of 3.8 points.
The 2013 Rose Bowl was no different. Wisconsin’s defense allowed Stanford to score on its first two opening possessions until it buckled down in the second half. However, when the Badgers needed a stop in the fourth quarter, the defense allowed the Cardinal a six-minute plus drive and a field goal, extending the opponent’s lead to six and only giving the Badgers offense a little over four minutes to operate.
The team missed a definitive playmaker once again in 2012, a man who fans and coaches alike would turn to in crunch time to make a play. There was no JJ Watt impact-type of player to help close out games. Instead, the Wisconsin defense was a group of 14-16 players who were all extremely disciplined and turned out consistent performances, to keep its team in the game. It was enough to help push the team to an unprecedented third straight appearance in Pasadena, a feat that has only been established twice before in Big Ten history by a single team and never before at Wisconsin.
Wisconsin graduates just four senior starters on defense, including Taylor, Smith, cornerback Marcus Cromartie and safety Shelton Johnson, making it no stretch in predicting Wisconsin fans can expect more of the same from the Badger defense in 2013.
“It was just another year,” Taylor said.