When defensive coordinator Dave Aranda first arrived in Wisconsin he found a big, veteran DL waiting for him that had obvious purposes in the new 3-4 defense, namely to keep linebacker Chris Borland clean as he wreaked havoc on opposing offenses.
But after 6'2" 330 pound nose tackle Beau Allen and star linebacker Borland departed, the Badger front no longer included a collection of obvious 3-4 defensive players but instead several tweener-sized players at multiple positions.
That suited Aranda just fine, and he made use of the versatility in his players to create a defense heavy on disguise and movement that finished seventh in the nation on passing downs on 15th overall in S&P.
Thanks to a year of strong defensive play (and Melvin Gordon), Wisconsin had the chance to take on the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big 10 Championship game. It was here that the Badger defense hit a snag. The Buckeyes seemed to be able to destroy the Badger defense no matter what they did, throwing for 257 yards at 14.3 yards per pass while running for 301 yards at 7.9 yards per rush.
The Badgers' reward for this humiliation was to face another smashmouth spread team in the Auburn Tigers at the Outback Bowl. Aranda took the opportunity for redemption and adjusted their strategy to allow the Badgers a chance to win their bowl game, recover momentum as a program, and find some answers for a problem that isn't going away any time soon.
WIth their 34-31 victory over Malzahn, the Badgers found some answers, again relying on some hybrid athletes that will return to be the foundation for another top defense in 2015
Problems against Ohio State
Aranda's plan against the Buckeyes was to aggressively load the middle of the field with players that could fill the extra gaps created by the Buckeyes' QB run game.
The Badgers played 2-4-5 nickel personnel with cornerback Darius Hillary in the nickel position to allow them to play man coverage on the Buckeye receivers. The outside linebackers, Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert, looked to keep the Ohio State run game forced inside of the tackle box where the inside linebackers and down safety would clean it up.
Although they were playing cover 3, the Badgers deep safety would just look to help over the top of the slot receiver or outside receivers on in-breaking routes in the middle of the field. He didn't drop particularly deep so that he could serve as an 8th man in the box so consequently the Badger DBs were totally isolated in man coverage without safety help on any throws outside of the hash marks.
The Buckeyes destroyed this game plan first by attacking the man coverage with play-action, then they took apart the run defense with zone slice and other RB-focused run schemes. The Badger safeties and linebackers struggled to navigate space well and get their hats in the appropriate places to stop the run, partly because they spent their practice week preparing to stop the QB run game.
The Badgers started by sending Caputo into the middle and then began dropping him as the down safety but neither approaches were very effective and the Badgers gave up scores on four of the first five Ohio State drives.
Solutions against Auburn
Against Auburn, the Badgers played a different nickel package and utilized the same 2-4 personnel but with a different approach up front. This time the Badgers played with three safeties rather than three corners, and asked different things of their outside linebackers.
The goal remained to keep the ball between the tackles but the Badgers were able to put less stress on the linebackers and safeties by canceling out an interior gap with one of the outside linebackers playing over a tackle as a de-facto defensive end.
After a coverage bust early in the game, they also substituted a new free safety, started playing cover 3, and found a solution that made it very difficult for the Tigers to bust big plays:
With the outside linebacker asked to play inside gaps like a defensive end, the nickel became one of the run-force players. Instead of having an eight man front the Badgers settled for getting seven players into the box but they were actually more successful here in forcing the Tigers to play in tighter spaces and freeing their inside linebackers from having to pick the right gap playing behind only two DL.
More importantly, they were in much better shape against the passing game giving up only 6.9 yards per pass after the initial 66 yard coverage bust. Auburn was still able to run the ball but weren't able to consistently land big punches.
The key players
Vince Biegel: Linebacker, defensive end, or defensive tackle?
The lucky outside linebacker who was lined up over an offensive tackle in a 4i technique as a de-facto 3-4 DE was star pass-rushing outside linebacker Vince Biegel. The 6'4" 241 pound redshirt junior to be was able to use his length to ward off the Auburn tackles and work his way into the B-gap.
Normally Biegel was a player Wisconsin would use to force/blitz the edge and he had 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2014 while featured in this role. However, his willingness to take on this inglorious assignment playing as a 3-4 DE and battling SEC OL with 60 pounds of weight on him helped keep the Badger defensive backs clean and able to fill creases so that neither Nick Marshall nor Cameron Artis-Payne could find room to accelerate and make the Badgers pay.
Both Biegel and fellow outside linebacker Joe Schobert return to lead the Badger front in 2015.
Michael Caputo: Box safety
Caputo can play man coverage on a slot receiver, hawk the ball as a robber safety in the middle of the field, or play on the edge as a nickel/outside linebacker as he did in the Auburn game. The Badger strong safety had 106 tackles and six pass break-ups in 2014 filling these various roles and is possibly the best tackler on the team.
He'll be even more freed up to play near the line of scrimmage and be a rover in the middle of the field next to his new partner who subbed in against Auburn, Tanner McEvoy.
Tanner McEvoy:Free safety, quarterback, wide receiver
Standing at 6'6" 220 pounds, McEvoy is actually one of the fastest and most unique players on the Badger roster. He was recruited from the JUCO ranks to play quarterback but then coach Gary Andersen determined that his athleticism demanded that he be on the field and played him at safety in 2013 before moving him to quarterback in 2014. Heading into his senior year McEvoy will play free safety but also see some time at receiver and perhaps wildcat QB.
When playing the deep middle on defense in cover 3, McEvoy can erase the dig, post, and seam routes. In addition to possessing effective range in coverage due to his speed, his long arms make it perilous for college quarterbacks to try and challenge the Badgers in the deep middle.
Meanwhile, his range also makes him a very effective in run support as he can often reach running backs coming from the deep middle and bring them to the ground before they reach the first down marker. Good luck finding another crease on 2nd down against the stout Badger front.
Auburn was repeatedly frustrated to find that after probing and finding leverage advantages against the Badgers, McEvoy would make the tackle before they got much out of it and then the linebackers would adjust to the new Tiger tactic.
The 2015 Badger defense
With these three hybrid players returning, the Badgers can repeat what worked in 2014 and trust McEvoy and their veteran corners Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary to keep the ball in front of them, thus freeing up Caputo to join Biegel and Schobert up front as they outnumber and attack opposing running games.
Traditional smashmouth teams that don't try to spread out defenses before overpowering them in the middle are in arguably even worse shape against the Wisconsin defense as they'll have to contend with cover 1 robber schemes that play Biegel and Schobert on the edges with Caputo roving in the middle:
The Badger defense is built more for snuffing out pro-style, Big 10 offenses than handling the stresses of a spread offense. But with versatile hybrids like Biegel, Caputo, and McEvoy on the field Dave Aranda is finding solutions that will allow them to also play high level defense against the dangerous spread offenses creeping into the Big 10.
With a favorable schedule playing against the weaker Big 10 West, look no further than Madison, Wisconsin for a glimpse at the team most likely to ruin the Ohio State Buckeyes' attempt to repeat as national champions.