Badgers have problems to fix on defense before Capital One Bowl

MADISON, Wis. — Four plays into one of the most important
games of the season, and something wasn’t right with Wisconsin’s defense. In
the span of less than two minutes, the Badgers already had surrendered their
longest play of the season after Penn State tight end Adam Breneman escaped a
missed tackle to score a 68-yard touchdown.

Wisconsin didn’t see the wake-up call until the game was
over. And in the week since that crushing 31-24 senior-day loss at Camp Randall
Stadium, players have had to try pushing the result from their memory, however
difficult.

Sunday offered an opportunity for the Badgers to finally put
that game behind them and focus on a New Year’s Day game against South Carolina
in the Capital One Bowl. Yet even in looking ahead, they were asked to revisit
what went wrong — and what they could fix to avoid a similar catastrophe
against the Gamecocks.

Badgers nose guard Beau Allen said he watched film of the
Penn State game on his team-issued iPad the same night. The most glaring issue
was surrendering too many big plays. Penn State recorded the four longest plays
from scrimmage against Wisconsin’s defense of the entire season.

“You can use that film as kind of motivation I think at
this point,” Allen said. “I don’t know how good it is, how beneficial
it is for everybody to go back and think about what if we could have done this
or defensively we should have done that. I think that’s what it’s about at this
point, just watch the film, learn from the film, learn from the Xs and Os. But
I think we’ve just got to move forward.”

In addition to the 68-yard touchdown that began the game,
Penn State also reeled off plays of 52, 59 and 61 yards. The 61-yarder came on
a third-down draw play to running back Zach Zwinack and ate precious seconds
off the clock as Wisconsin tried to mount a late fourth-quarter comeback.

“It really does annoy you a lot,” Badgers safety
Dezmen Southward said of the team’s defensive breakdowns. “And I for one
did obviously get a chance to watch the game as well, and it’s kind of annoying
because you see a lot of opportunity to make plays.

“That’s something that hopefully will make our fire
burn a little bit more in this instance to where we prepare that much harder,
we work that much harder in practice in order not to make those little mistakes
that turn into big plays.”

Perhaps the most head-scratching defensive series of the
entire season took place in the third quarter, when Wisconsin resembled
something of a junior varsity team for its inability to keep 11 players on the
field. The Badgers ran plays with nine and 10 men on the field and drew an
illegal substation penalty when it had 12 men on the field.

Penn State would score the go-ahead touchdown to take a
21-14 lead.

“The change of pace caught us a little bit in a couple
situations,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “We’ve discussed it.
It’s not acceptable on defense to have that happen to us. That overall was just
one of the situations that took place in that game. It looks bad when that
stuff takes place. We don’t want it to happen. It did, and we’ve addressed it.

“That was not by any means what cost us the football
game. The big plays is what cost us the football game and then obviously our
inability to score enough points to have a chance to be able to win.”

If the defensive struggles weren’t enough against Penn
State, Andersen appeared to make his most pointed criticism of quarterback Joel
Stave on a Sunday night conference call with reporters for his inconsistency
throwing the football. Stave completed 29 of 53 passes (both career highs) for
339 yards with three touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions and
misfired on several throws to open receivers — a bugaboo that has plagued him
for much of the season.

“In the last couple football games we played on the
offensive side of the football, people basically said, ‘We dare you to throw
the ball.’ And it worked out for them,” Andersen said. “Even in the
Minnesota game, you sit back and you look at it, and they dared us to throw the
football. Penn State did the same thing. We’ve got to be able to run the ball
more effectively, and to be able to do that at this point, we are going to have
to be able to throw the football better and open up the offense a little bit
and get some other people involved.

“It’s very difficult. We have great running backs, we
have a very talented offensive line, good blocking tight ends, good blocking
wide receivers, all that stuff that comes with it. But when they’re plus-one,
plus-two in the box, it becomes very difficult.”

Although Wisconsin ranks sixth nationally in total defense
(294.0 yards per game), Penn State exposed several areas that will be readily
available for South Carolina to see on film. And UW now has three weeks to
correct those mistakes before its bowl game.

The Gamecocks rank No. 33 in total offense (453.5 yards per
game) and are averaging 31.0 points per game.

Southward recognizes the task defensively will be immense —
and one his team will have to meet if Wisconsin is to win its first bowl game
since 2009.

“If you take any team from the SEC, I think you’ll see
a ton of athleticism,” he said. “Explosive plays will be made
throughout that film. Just because of how good they are athletically and how
talented they are.

“We don’t know very much, obviously, schematically yet.
But just from watching them in the games that we’ve been able to watch, you
have to be impressed with the things that they’ve been able to do in their run
game. It will be obviously a big-time challenge for us to stop them.”

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