Summer is finally over and the Wisconsin Badgers are back.
Back like their dominant 13-1 2017 season? Maybe not completely. But after a disappointing 8-5 season during which they barely managed a winning record against Big Ten opponents, Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team is taking strides back toward 2017 form.
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That team was built on a stingy defense, a strong offensive line and a game manager at quarterback handing the ball off to Jonathan Taylor 25 times a game.
The difference between the team’s success in 2017 and the lack thereof in 2018? The stingy defense.
Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s 2017 defense ranked third in the nation with only 13.9 points allowed per game, and the team as a whole paced the country with an SRS score — a statistic which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule — of 22.61.
The 2018 defense? They finished the year 34th in the country with 22.6 points allowed per game, 100 more points allowed in total than the 2017 team and an SRS of 7.67, good for just 30th in the nation.
This decrease in defensive production not only affected the Badgers statistically, but also significantly lowered their ability to close games. While part of 2018’s 8-5 record can be attributed to the injury of Alex Hornibrook and a weakened receiver core, the loss of a stalwart defensive played an extremely large role in exacerbating the existing problems on offense.
Much of the dropoff can be attributed to Chryst and Leonhard saying goodbye to seven defensive starters, most notably leaders of the unit Leon Jacobs, Nick Nelson, Alec James and Natrell Jamerson. And while the linebacking core of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — the team’s two leading tacklers — returned for 2018, the cast of new faces on the defensive line and in the secondary hurt Leonhard’s unit immensely.
Specifically, Leonhard’s secondary in 2017 only allowed a 48.6 percent completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, a number which jumped up to 58 percent with his young secondary in 2018.
His 2017 defensive line only allowed 98.4 rush yards per game, .5 touchdowns per game and a yards-per-carry average of 3.2. His new-look 2018 line conceded a whopping 155.1 rush yards per game, 1.3 rushing touchdowns per game and a yards-per-carry clip of 4.4.
In total, Leonhard’s 2017 defense gave up 262 yards per game. In 2018 that number was 344.
Now with the 2019 season underway, Leonhard returns the majority of the secondary and defensive line. And though he and Chryst lost defensive leaders Connelly and Edwards to the NFL, Chris Orr returns to lead the defense and will line up behind a vastly improved defensive line that is headlined by senior Zack Baun and junior Isaiahh Loudermilk.
This formula, a strong and athletic defensive line paired with tough, veteran linebackers, is what brought Chryst’s 2017 team one drive away from the College Football Playoff and is what will determine whether the 2019 defense can return to that dominant form.
Friday night against South Florida, all signs pointed towards the return of Wisconsin’s defense as we know it.
From the first drive of the game the defense’s experience, talent and improvement were apparent, and the unit shut out USF Head Coach Charlie Strong’s explosive offense. The final score, 49–0, didn’t even tell the whole story on how dominant the defense was.
South Florida’s final statistics: nine total first downs, three of 16 on third and fourth downs, 157 total yards, 26 rushing yards and three turnovers including one returned for a touchdown.
The last time Wisconsin allowed fewer than 30 rushing yards in a game was Sept. 30, 2017 against Northwestern. It was also 2017 when the Badgers last shut out an opponent.
On top of an already-impressive game defending against South Florida’s rushing attack, the Badgers also managed to largely shut down veteran senior QB Blake Barnett. The defense held him to just 131 yards passing for the entire night and managed to also force two interceptions.
This impressive performance points toward signs of a revamped secondary that barely weathered a storm of injuries and lack of experience last season.
If it hasn’t been made apparent already, Friday night’s game bled shades of 2017 and is pointing toward a great season in Madison.
If Orr, Sanborn and the defensive line can continue to control the run game and pressure opposing QB like they did on Friday and like the 2017 unit was able to do, expect the defense to build upon its impressive week one showing and bring the Badgers to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.
Tough tests certainly remain for the Badgers throughout the season, including multiple high-powered threats such as The Ohio State University offense and Nebraska QB Adrian Martinez.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Badgers defense will be able to hold up to its performance against South Florida. More importantly, it remains to be seen whether or not they can live up to the defense expectations set by their highly impressive 2017 season.
If they don’t, and teams like Northwestern, Minnesota and Michigan are able to run the ball like they did last season against Chryst’s team, expect another subpar year and more never-ending Graham Mertz talk as the 2020 season approaches.