Hidden behind overtime thrillers, records being broken on offense and costly missed field goals lies a Wisconsin defense that may be quietly peaking just in time for Saturday’s rematch against Nebraska (7-1 Big Ten, 10-2 overall) in the Big Ten Championship game.
The Badgers (4-4, 7-5) allowed more than 14 points last Saturday against Penn State for the first time since—you guessed it—Sept. 29 in Lincoln, when they allowed 20 second-half points in their 30-27 loss to the Cornhuskers.
The Badgers’ defense made first team All-Big Ten Michigan State junior running back Le’Veon Bell a non-factor in their 16-13 overtime loss, holding him to 77 yards on 21 carries. He averages over 137 rushing yards per game.
They made the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year in sophomore Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller look silly at times by holding him to 48 yards rushing on 23 carries and 97 yards through the air. He averaged nearly 106 yards rushing per game and 169.9 passing yards per game this season.
“Our goal on defense is to never peak,” redshirt senior safety Shelton Johnson said, who is playing Nebraska for the first time in his career Saturday. “Especially with [defensive backs] coach [Chris] Ash. But we are playing our best ball that we’ve been playing all year, I would definitely say that.”
Redshirt junior linebacker Ethan Armstrong had to think a bit longer when asked if the defense was peaking but agreed with Johnson in the end.
“Maybe we are,” he said. “We definitely hit a stride. We are kind of getting hot.”
Although it has been two months since the Badgers saw senior quarterback Taylor Martinez and the Huskers, they have squared off against some very similar athletes in the past two weeks to the ones that Nebraska boasts.
The Badgers were able to significantly slow Miller’s run game two weeks ago, and many Badgers attributed that to different looks on third down and showing a 4-2-5 more often. While Miller bears a resemblance to Martinez, Johnson doesn’t think the similarities are strong enough to show the same type of schemes Saturday.
“I wouldn’t say we’re bringing our Braxton Miller game plan and putting it on Taylor Martinez,” Johnson said. “Some of the plays are very similar, but a lot of them aren’t.”
But Armstrong—who said Martinez is faster, but not as shifty as Miller—says the similarities shouldn’t necessarily go unnoticed.
“There are some parallels and we have to defend them in similar ways,” he said. “They’re great players.”
The Badgers saw a back similar to Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead just last week against Penn State in junior running back Zach Zwinak, who ran for a career-high 179 yards. Although Johnson said the shiftiness is much more evident in Burkhead than Zwinak, coming off a game featuring a bruising running back will definitely benefit the Badgers.
Add sophomore running back Ameer Abdullah to the mix, who has 1,071 yards on the ground this season, and Armstrong says the offense resembles “a perfect storm.”
While the Badgers have shown virtually no ability to close out games this season, the Huskers have done the complete opposite by winning four conference games in which they trailed at halftime.
The ability to close out in crunch time like the Huskers have done is a perfect testament to the extent of the team’s growth in just this season alone and what distinguishes them from the Badgers, Armstrong says.
“You can definitely see that they’re maturing,” he said. “They’ve closed out some close games, and come back from some pretty big deficits. So you see the intangible things happen in those situations and the leadership kind of take over in their offense.”