Not Under Pressure: Wisconsin's Defense Knows It Needs To Do More

Not Under Pressure: Wisconsin's Defense Knows It Needs To Do More

Football

Not Under Pressure: Wisconsin's Defense Knows It Needs To Do More

MADISON, Wis. – A dominant defense was the University of Wisconsin’s calling card a season ago, the great eraser to clean up mistakes made by the offense and keep opponents from putting points on the scoreboard.

This year’s version was almost guaranteed to be different, especially with seven new starters filling critical roles, so the early growing pains aren’t all that surprising.

Entering tonight’s Big Ten opener at Iowa, Wisconsin (2-1) ranks a respectable 11th nationally in total defense (275.7 ypg) and passing defense (145.0) and a below average 48th against the run (130.7 ypg). But where things are really sagging for the Badgers is the pressure the front seven is generating, or in this case not generating.

After three home games, Wisconsin is tied for 84th in the country in tackles for loss per game (5.3) and 106th in the country in sacks per game (1.0). Part of it comes from the variety of spread, option and quick-throw offenses they’ve faced, preventing the opportunity to throw adequate pressure on quarterbacks and ball carriers, but the Badgers managed only one sack and five tackles for loss against BYU’s more-traditional offense.

Of the 27 plays the Cougars ran on their four scoring drives (three touchdowns, one field goal), only one went for negative yards. Wisconsin also allowed 191 rushing yards, just the sixth time in 44 games under Paul Chryst that the Badgers allowed more than 150 rushing yards to an opponent.

“Pressure overall, I think we all can improve,” senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu said. “From a defensive line standpoint, it’s good to see outside linebackers make plays but it would be nice to put a number up from the d-line on the board. All we can do is work from there, just play and work at it. We got to work on getting pressure on people.”

Sagapolu is the lone key holdover from UW’s 2017 defensive line, which has struggled early to replace the consistency of seniors Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. UW also has been bitten by injuries at outside linebacker. Needing to replace seniors Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, two of the unit’s top three players – junior Tyler Johnson and senior Andrew Van Ginkel – both played sparingly last week because of leg injuries.

Johnson is expected to be back against the Hawkeyes, while Van Ginkel – who hurt his right leg against the Cougars – is listed as a game-time decision. If Van Ginkel can’t play, UW will turn to seldom-used sophomores Christian Bell and Noah Burks.

“Every guy on this team, every unit on this team, there’s been some good, and you’ve got to build on that,” Chryst said. “And there’s areas where we’ve got to get better and can get better.”

UW will need to get significantly better in the first road test of the season.

Quarterback Nate Stanley, who imploded in a road loss to Wisconsin last year, went 23-for-28 passing last week in a win over Northern Iowa. Not only does Stanley have a handful of players to target, but Iowa also has a trio of tailback (sophomores Ivory Kelly-Martin, Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young) who have combined for 435 yards and six rushing touchdowns.

“Both what they do and how they do it, across the board, I think they are playing really good,” Chryst said. “You can hone in too much one area or the other. You have to play good sound defense against them … They can make plays and can create some things in the run game.”

Iowa’s offensive line is a mixture of seniors and sophomores but a group that is still somewhat of an unknown. The three seniors in the middle – left guard Ross Reynolds, center Keegan Render and right guard Dalton Ferguson – are either new starters or, in Render’s case, playing a new position. Left tackle Alaric Jackson and right tackle Tristan Wirfs started against Wisconsin last year, an afternoon where the Hawkeyes generated 66 yards of total offense and gave up four sacks.

The Badgers have won each of their last four trips to Iowa City, the last two being critical of the landscape of the Big Ten West Division. Since the current divisional lineup was created in 2014, the winner of the Iowa-Wisconsin matchup.

A loss to BYU might have cost UW a spot in the College Football Playoffs. A loss tonight will certainly cost the Badgers much more.

“You look back (at BYU) and you’re just frustrated by the missed opportunities,” outside linebacker Zack Baun said. “Moving forward, you’ve got to take it as fuel and try harder. We’ve got a bad taste in our mouth and we don’t want it again.”

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