Wisconsin's defense seeks aggressive start in matchup with Northwestern

Wisconsin's defense is in need of a fast start against Northwestern this weekend. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

The Wisconsin Badgers (0-0 Big Ten, 3-0 Overall) haven’t allowed a single point in the second half of any game this season. That’s not to say they start slow defensively, but clearly halftime adjustments have been critical to shutting teams out for the game’s final 30 minutes.

As they prepare for the Northwestern Wildcats (0-0, 2-1) following their bye week, the Badgers’ defense wants to get off to a faster start against a team that has struggled with slow starts themselves.

Week 1, Northwestern found themselves down 17-7 to Nevada at the half, and the Wildcats lost Week 2 to Duke after falling behind by 18 points in the second quarter.

The Badgers have been able to digest all that tape during their week off, and they’re antsy to get back on the field and pick up where they left off after their first three games.

“I think in the beginning of the year, it’s a little bit tougher just because you don’t have as much film from this year on a team,” redshirt senior defensive end Alec James said. “But now that each of us have three games under our belt, we can see what they run and scheme for them early instead of just relying on halftime adjustments more.”

Northwestern has done a very good job of keeping its redshirt junior quarterback Clayton Thorson well protected. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s been under pressure on just 20 percent of his drop backs, the second-lowest rate in the Big Ten this season.

The Wildcats have mixed in some drives of fast-paced offense to add another dimension to their attack, but Thorson has been successful on slow developing plays too.

“They don’t do it all the time, but they have that ability to go up-tempo,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “It’s great that you have two weeks to kind of prepare for it, and early on this season, we’ve seen a lot of it, so we’ve got good reps at it.”

Thorson has had plenty of time to scan the field when he needs to, finding open receivers to keep his offense moving. Wisconsin will try to change that this week, early and often.

Doing so early on has been the hard part, though, for the Badgers this season, as their opponents have come out moving the ball quickly to try to neutralize their pass rush.

Wisconsin’s defense has eight sacks on the season, but only one has come in the first quarter and two total have come in the first half, both against Florida Atlantic.

Northwestern’s offensive line has grown together with experience as it returns three starters from last year, forming a smart group that does a good job handling whatever opponents have thrown at it.

“They communicate very well. So, it’s not a team that, you give them a couple of different looks and they panic,” Leonhard said. “It is going to be a chess match a little bit as far as trying to get to the quarterback, knowing that they are that group. They’ve done a great job, and the quarterback also does a good job of getting the ball out of his hands when he needs to.”

While Leonard is early in his young coaching career, the Badgers’ third defensive coordinator in as many years is no rookie. Leonard has drawn on his past experiences to dial-up some exotic blitz packages, particularly on third downs, that free up pass rushers to put opposing quarterbacks in checkmate.

“I don’t like to let offenses dictate the entire game, so you want to give multiple looks. You want to makes offenses go to the sideline and scratch their head a little bit and try to find the answer,” Leonard said. “You’ve got to try and get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, and you’ve got to try and give offensive lines some troubles.”

Giving Northwestern’s offensive line some trouble will be key to slowing down Thorson and the Wildcats. Wisconsin has done it in the second half of games this season, but in order to step-up for the start of Big Ten play, Leonhard and his Badger defense is going to need to bring it for four quarters.

Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at Camp Randall Stadium.

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