Every team has an identity. Clemson scores effortlessly, Alabama is well balanced and versatile, Penn State married the long ball and created an explosive passing game, and Wisconsin? Wisconsin’s smothering defense won them games.
At season’s end, despite a disappointing loss in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badger defense was elit,e not only in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten, but among FBS teams overall. The statistics paint a convincing picture: 7th in Total Defense allowing only 301.4 YPG, 24 TDs allowed, and 4.92 Yards Per Play. 2nd in Passes Intercepted at 22, 3rd in Rushing Defense allowing 98.8 YPG and only nine total TDs. 4th in Scoring Defense where opponents averaged a scarce 15.6 PPG. Perhaps the most important stat as it relates to game momentum and subsequent wins: the Badgers ranked 4th overall in defensive 3rd down completion percentage with opponents converting at a mere 27.9% rate.
In most facets of a defensive scheme, Wisconsin was not only performing at a high level, but they were performing that way consistently. Said consistency was thanks to dedicated attention to detail: one part preparation, two parts execution, and a healthy dose of confidence. Confidence is sometimes misunderstood as arrogance, but confidence was warranted as the boys in red and white delivered again and again. After the first game of the year, an outstanding upset of then-No. 5 LSU, a game where the high powered Tigers mustered a measly 131 passing yards and threw two interceptions, cornerback Sojourn Shelton put it simply: “Honestly, I think we played lights out.” That purely bold statement seems gusty at a time where the Badgers had one game under their belt, but honestly, they did play lights out, and what’s more, they continued to.
With stifling wins over Michigan State, Northwestern, Iowa, and Illinois, all only mustering single digit scoring totals, the Badger defense had solidified its identity, one with an incredible eye for detail. Sojourn Shelton spoke about his momentum-shifting interception versus Minnesota, emphasizing his focus on Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner’s throwing hand.
“I saw his hand coming off the ball, so I just took a risk. If it was a double move, you’d all be talking bad about me. But I just took a risk and went for it,” Shelton said.
This methodical nature lead to a highly efficient and effective defense. In addition to this attention to detail during game action, linebacker T.J. Watt spoke to the Wisconsin State Journal regarding his assessment of body language versus Minnesota.
“(Minnesota’s) offensive line kind of got a little down on themselves, you could kind of see it in their eyes. You could see it in their demeanor. That’s when we knew we had ’em beat.”
When a defense can assess an offense beyond simple gameplay, said defense will excel, and that’s precisely what Wisconsin was able to accomplish.
Unfortunately, the facet that underperformed the most, perhaps, was the secondary. The Badgers ranked 30th in passing yards allowed, surrendering a rough 202.6 YPG. This weakness was horrendously exposed against Penn State in Indianapolis, where quarterback Chase McSorely torched the Badgers for 33, 40, and 70 yard passing TDs and four total TDs.
Passing yard accumulation haunted against opponents Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan, their three total losses, all passing over 200 yards. With an otherwise established defense, this facet was clearly in need of the most attention.
A successful season behind the Badgers considering preseason expectations, a large portion of the credit is due to an elite and versatile defense.