Football

'It felt good:' After season of struggles, Wisconsin regains its defensive identity one final time

Senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel made eight tackles, forced a fumble and recorded a sack as part of a throwback performance from Wisconsin's defensive front.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

NEW YORK — In recent years, defense has been Wisconsin’s football identity. The Badgers ranked third in the country in scoring defense last season, fourth a year before, first the year before that. For even the most experienced players on Wisconsin’s roster, elite defense is all they’ve ever known.

Or it was, until 2018.

A combination of departures, injuries, inexperience and plain bad luck put Wisconsin’s defense in uncharted territory. The Badgers ranked 44th in the country, allowing 24.3 points per game, their worst mark in 10 years.

But for one night, Wisconsin recovered its defensive magic and put together a stifling performance reminiscent of dominant Badger defenses of years past. Even more, they did it against an opponent whose defense had gotten nearly all the talk heading into the matchup and who threatened to steal their mantle as one of the country’s elite defensive teams.

Wisconsin (5-4 Big Ten, 8-5 overall) put it all together defensively at the last possible moment against the Miami Hurricanes (4-4 ACC, 7-6) and held them to just three points in a dominant Pinstripe Bowl victory.

“We got back to the standard that we had set here a couple years ago defensively and my whole career here,” inside linebacker Chris Orr said. “What better moment for it to happen than in the last game, play as a complete defense, play a whole four quarters and dominate.”

When the dust settled on the game, the numbers were season bests across the board, echoing great defensive performances in recent seasons.

The Badgers allowed just 169 total yards, less than half their season average. They held Miami starting quarterback Malik Rosier to 46 yards on 12 attempts while intercepting him three times. They treated his backup N’Kosi Perry even worse — 2 yards on five attempts, with yet another interception.

Against a defense that had become famous as proprietors of the "Turnover Chain," Wisconsin took the ball away early and often, stalling Miami drives and setting its own offense up with tantalizing field position.

On Miami’s first play of the game, sophomore safety Eric Burrell stepped in front of Rosier’s pass and took it back 29 yards to the Hurricanes’ 7-yard line, setting up a touchdown that extended a lead Wisconsin never looked back from.

“We had a lot of turnovers today; I think it set us off right,” Burrell said. “I think we just all played well. We just played well, stuck to the game plan and it showed.”

Burrell’s teammates were quick to get in on the action. Midway through the second quarter, Orr came down with an interception on a play where Rosier appeared to not see the lurking linebacker. On the next drive, fellow inside linebacker T.J. Edwards recovered a fumble, and the feeding frenzy was on. The Hurricanes turned the ball over five times in total, and Wisconsin defenders got their hands on multiple more would-be interceptions.

“[When you force turnovers] you start to see them lose their willpower, especially when our offense keeps driving the ball and scoring,” Orr said.

For much of the game, Wisconsin’s offense did exactly the opposite, going 38 minutes after the touchdown off of Burrell’s interception without adding any points. But even as the offense squandered opportunities in Miami’s end, the Badgers’ defense locked the Hurricanes down in their own end.

“They played unbelievably well,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “We had a good plan, players understood it, did a nice job of getting some in the run and we were opportunistic.”

Maintaining the lead even as the offense sputtered played a key role in the eventual breakout, as the Badgers were able to use their advantage on the scoreboard to keep running the ball throughout the second and third quarters. Eventually, sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor broke through with a 41-yard run that set up senior fullback Alec Ingold to punch in the touchdown and extend the lead.

“It gives you a lot of confidence [when the defense makes stops] because you know they have your back,” Taylor said. “You look at the effort they’re putting out, they’re diving for interceptions, diving for tackles so then you kind of look at yourself and say, 'How much am I going to give?'”

Statistically, the dominance showed up in the interceptions and turnovers forced by the linebackers and the secondary. But Wisconsin’s control of the game started up front, where the defensive line succeeded for the first time this season in eating up blocks and controlling gaps for the linebackers and safeties to attack through.

“Guys trusted what they were seeing, and up front is really what did it for us,” Edwards said. “Our young d-line and outside ‘backers did a heck of a job tonight.”

After the game, multiple Wisconsin players agreed that Thursday night’s performance was the first time this season every unit on the defense played its best at the same time.

“I did not expect what happened today,” Orr said. “I’d be lying if I told you that.”

Wisconsin’s defense is still young, and it’s a long way from getting back to the heights it once reached. But for one night at Yankee Stadium, the Badgers showed they’re capable of making such a performance the expectation and not the exception.

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