Over halfway through the season the Wisconsin Badger defense has not just held their own, but made up for mistakes made by Wisconsin’s offense.
At 7-0 to start the season, the defense has been the difference. The overall stat line is stuffed with 22.0 sacks, 47.0 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions (four of which were returned for six points), 35 pass breakups and have hit opposing quarterbacks 22 times.
But the numbers don’t speak for themselves. As said earlier the offense has put the defense in many precarious situations.
Case in point: Saturday against Maryland when Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor fumbled the ball on Maryland’s goal line. Taylor’s fumble set up Maryland on the five-yard line with four downs to try and score a touchdown. But Wisconsin’s defense held tough and forced Maryland to settle on a field goal.
Read here to see how the defense turns offensive struggles into defensive opportunities.
So, as every other year of late, Wisconsin’s defense is close to being elite. There is one ominous area where the defense struggles and it is keeping them at good, not elite status.
Third down defense. Nationally, Wisconsin’s defense ranks only 24th nationally on stopping opposing teams on third down. Opponents have converted about 31 percent of third down opportunities against the stout Wisconsin defense.
Now, by no means is this awful or terrible, especially considering players lost for the season due to injury like linebacker Jack Cichy. But it should give some pause when looking at who Wisconsin has faced. No team this year that Wisconsin has faced ranks in the top 50 offensively.
The likes of Utah State, FAU, BYU and Northwestern don’t strike many as scary offensive opponents. Even the likes of Nebraska, a normally potent foe, is struggling offensively this season.
The problem on third downs for Wisconsin’s defense may lie in their short game pass coverage. They rank 16th nationally in passing defense allowing about 177 yards per game through the air on an above 10 yards per catch average. With third downs so often a passing play for the offense this could be the difference in their defense from being elite.
Obviously the defense has been great and done exceptionally well in a multitude of areas. They rank sixth overall nationally for defense and one reason why is their ability to hold their opponents to a mere 13.3 points per game.
One area really pulling up Wisconsin’s defensive ranking is their top five rushing defense that allows only 2.95 yards per carry and only 88 yards on the ground per game.
Looking at Wisconsin’s defensive ability to hold opponents to low scoring while allowing them to get some of their third down conversions makes it clear how they get their “bend don’t break” motto.
The defense also is tied for first nationally in defensive touchdowns, scoring four of them all off of interceptions. Again, they bail out a Wisconsin offense which sometimes is stagnant.
But Wisconsin has not faced anything relatively close to a top tier offense and with their good but not great third down defense, it leaves a hole (however small) for opponents to attack.
Teams like Iowa or Minnesota may not be able to exploit the opportunities Wisconsin’s defense gives up, but Michigan and Ohio State or Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game will most definitely be able to seize any and all chances opposing defenses give them.