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Wisconsin Badgers Spring Preview: 5 questions on defense

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Yes, we’ve hit that time of year once again — Spring has officially sprung, even if it doesn’t feel like it and the Wisconsin Badgers football program is back to work at spring practice.

Last week we took a look at the offensive questions heading in to spring camp. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball.

After a few years as one of the country’s best defenses, the Badgers took a bit of a step back last season. That makes this spring camp hugely important in turning this program back in to a national contender.

Let’s explore some of the questions facing this group heading in to the 3rd year under Jim Leonhard’s leadership.

Who is the Leader of this Group?

Wisconsin graduated Olive Sagapolu, T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and D’Cota Dixon after this past season. All four of them were big time leaders on the field and in the locker room.

Replacing their talent on the field is important, but finding the guys who will step up and take responsibility in the leadership department is going to be equally important.

There are a lot of younger players looking for playing time in 2019, so could it be veterans like Zack Baun and Chris Orr that step up as leaders? That’s certainly a possibility.

But, I wouldn’t be surprised to see names like Bryson Williams and Isaiahh Loudermilk to be in the mix or even safeties like Reggie Pearson or Scott Nelson help to shape this defensive group in 2019.

No matter what names emerge, this spring has to be all about finding an identity and that’s where leadership comes in to play.

Where Will the Pass Rush Come From?

Andrew Van Ginkel had a ton of promise in 2018, but it didn’t turn in to pass rush success very often. UW tallied just 19 sacks as a team, ranking 12th in the Big Ten last year. It was the lowest total for a Badgers defense since racking up just 25 back in 2013.

Van Ginkel is gone, Zack Baun is still there at outside linebacker but appears to be a better run stopping option than a pure pass rusher.

Wisconsin also faced a really tough situation along the defensive line last year with injuries taking a toll and many names not panning out as quality options either. Isaiahh Loudermilk’s injury issues were a disaster for the team that was already spread thin.

This spring will see expected Van Ginkel replacement Christian Bell not participating due to recovery from injury, so once again the pass rush will start from behind the eight ball.

It’s also a massive opportunity for the players who will be there at defensive end and linebacker.

Can a switch to outside linebacker give Griffin Grady a fresh look at playing time? What about young names like Izayah Green-May and Jaylan Franklin? Could Noah Burks live up to his potential as a recruit and what about the fresh face in Spencer Lytle?

That’s to say nothing of who gets the majority of the snaps at defensive end. It’s likely that Isaiahh Loudermilk will get one of the spots based on potential and experience alone, but whom starts at the other end is going to be difficult to figure out.

Regardless of what shakes out, Wisconsin has to find a way to get in the opponents backfield more often in 2019. Spring ball could be all about finding the combinations that work best to accomplish that goal.

Who Starts Next to Chris Orr at Inside Linebacker?

On many other teams, Chris Orr is likely a three-year starter. Such was the depth on the Badgers roster at inside linebacker that Orr has had to wait his turn. His turn comes in his senior season as well.

But, who starts next to him is the mystery we’re all trying to solve. The player who will get the first crack is likely Jack Sanborn. As a freshman last season, Sanborn played in 11 games and recorded 7 tackles, forced 1 fumble and had a pass break up as well.

Other names to watch are Mike Maskalunas and Seth Currens, who makes the switch from safety to inside linebacker this year.

Wisconsin needs to come out of spring ball confident that it has depth at the position, after having a lot of it over the past few years.

Who Will be Starters at Cornerback?

One of the reasons for Wisconsin’s struggles on defense last season was its youth and injuries at the cornerback position. UW lost both starters to the NFL draft following the 2017 season and left a big void in experience to say the least.

That won’t be the case in 2019, as the Badgers played a ton of people at cornerback in 2018. The youth is still there, but that doesn’t mean youth still doesn’t reign supreme.

In fact, not a single cornerback played in every game for the Badgers last season. Faion Hicks led the group in tackles, with 35, and also had 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception and 3 pass break ups.

Others that were in the rotation often last year were Madison Cone, Caesar Williams, Rachad Wildgoose and Deron Harrel. Wisconsin also loved what they saw from Alexander Smith and Travian Blaylock, who both saw action in 4 games while still protecting their redshirts.

Guessing which people emerge as the starters from this group is no easy task. Spring will be huge in figuring out the mess of intriguing options at cornerback and it could arguably be the biggest battle outside of quarterback on this team.

What Wrinkles Will Leonhard Have?

While this will be Leonhard’s third season in charge of the Badgers defense, it feels like it should be just his second. After all, his first season in charge saw plenty of players left over from previous coaching regimes.

So, what has Leonhard learned from having a much younger roster last season and again this year?

His ability to adapt to the situation at hand and get his players the experience needed has been a strong suit so far. Let’s see if he can add in being a quick developer of talent too.

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Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois

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This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.

Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.

With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.

Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.

Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.

Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.

Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.

Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.

On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.

From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.

Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.

Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.

Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.

This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Defense

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As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.

UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?

Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line: A+

One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.

Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.

Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.

We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.

Linebackers: A+

Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j

Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.

It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.

On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).

Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.

You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.

Secondary: A

If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.

But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.

It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.

Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.

Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.

Overall: A+

Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:

4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally

In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.

Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.

Enough said.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Offense

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Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.

You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.

But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.

Offensive Line: A –

All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.

We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.

If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.

Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.

This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.

Running Backs: B

Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.

In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.

Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.

John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.

Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.

Tight Ends: B+

Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.

Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.

There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.

On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.

As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.

Wide Receivers: B-

There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.

Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.

Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.

Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.

Quarterback: A –

Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.

He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.

Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.

Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.

I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.

Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.

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Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern

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It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.

UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?

Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.

Don’t forget to subscribe, hit that notifications bell and you’ll never miss a single video the rest of the year!

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