Column: Wisconsin needs to find its defensive identity again

Senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu was listed out for the season before Wisconsin's game before No. 21 Penn State. Junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook is questionable after being in concussion protocol.

Image By: McKenzie Halling

Wisconsin’s season took a wrong turn last week.

It wasn’t when Rafael Gaglianone sealed the loss by missing a 42-yard field goal with under a minute to play. It wasn’t when Alex Hornibrook threw an avoidable third-quarter interception that led to a BYU touchdown.

No, the Badgers’ season veered off course with 12:20 remaining in the fourth quarter when Cougars’ running back Squally Canada ripped up the home team for a 46-yard run up the middle.

The play silenced a previously raucous crowd, who had surely believed the game was under control after Taiwan Deal evened the score at 21 apiece.

But Wisconsin’s defense — its identity — faltered when it was needed most. Canada’s run set up a field goal that gave BYU the winning points in the 24-21 upset.

But it wasn’t just that run where the Badgers were exposed.

The Cougars left Madison with 191 total rushing yards, the third-highest opponent total in a Wisconsin non-conference home game in the last decade. In fact, since 2008, only six teams have left Camp Randall with over 150 rushing yards; no other team had done it against Paul Chryst prior to last Saturday.

That statistic should be concerning to Chryst, who has raised Wisconsin’s profile since taking over in 2015.

Perhaps the spotlight had gotten too bright.

The weird thing about Wisconsin’s loss was that BYU beat their hosts at their own game. They won the battle of the trenches, ran the ball and passed only situationally.

Unexpectedly, that plan worked.

Whether Canada was simply too good or the Badgers had an off day is mostly irrelevant now. But Wisconsin shouldn’t be — can’t be — losing because of its defense.

The Badgers allowed just 13.9 points per contest last season and held opponents to just 98.4 rushing yards per game. Only Michigan State and Alabama were better in that regard.

To be fair, there has been a roster turnover. Leon Jacobs, Alec James, Garret Dooley and Nick Nelson are all gone, and now Andrew Van Ginkel and Isaiahh Loudermilk are in their first seasons as starters. Still, seniors T.J Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Olive Sagapolu are still manning the interior. This isn’t exactly a brand new unit.

The Badgers, frankly, might not have the defensive talent to have a season like last year’s and earn a trip to the Big Ten Championship. The assembly line of defensive talent can only last for so long.

What they do have, however, is a culture to uphold. And that culture doesn’t look like losing to unranked, non-conference teams at their own game.

Wisconsin’s season turned against BYU. 

Can they get it back on track?

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