MADISON, Wis. — On the surface, there would appear to be very little Wisconsin’s defense didn’t do well during its 45-0 pasting of UMass in the teams’ season opener Saturday. But one curious stat emerged that is worth another look: the Badgers somehow did not record a single tackle for a loss.
What gives? How could a defense predicated on pressure fail to achieve one of its primary goals against arguably the worst team in the Football Bowl Subdivision? And, more important, is there cause for concern moving forward?
Well, not really.
Yes, it is true that 117 of 125 FBS teams tallied at least one tackle for a loss in their first game, and Wisconsin was not one of them. It is also true that 18 FBS players recorded at least three TFLs and 100 players registered at least two.
Still, a couple factors prevent members of Wisconsin’s defense from expressing any worry.
For one, UMass quarterbacks were quick to get the ball out of their hands on three- or five-step drops to avoid pressure. Plus, the running backs didn’t find much daylight on any of their carries, even if they managed to reach the line of scrimmage. They gained 100 yards rushing on 29 carries for an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
“I don’t think we had a bunch of opportunities,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “The sacks, that can happen. I’ve been in many of those games to where I think we disrupted the quarterback, which is our goal. TFLs. Is that highly concerning? No. They were 3.4 per rush.
“Three yards or under is playing great, great defense in the run game. Anywhere between 3.0 and 3.5, if you’re doing that at the end of the year, you’re going to be one of the best rushing (defense) teams in the country.”
Badgers defensive end Ethan Hemer noted UMass made a point to test the edges and work the outside of the field with short passes that required minimal stress on the quarterback.
“The lack of TFLs and production as a whole doesn’t tell the whole story,” Hemer said. “Realistically, our defense did what we were supposed to do. We kept them off the scoreboard. There will be things to improve on, but we did our job.”
Additionally, Wisconsin did not display the full defensive arsenal players have learned under coordinator Dave Aranda. Hemer said it might not be until Week 8 or 9 of the season when the majority of a team’s defense shows up on film. If Aranda wishes to dial up more pressure, he can find schemes the team hasn’t used.
“And then it depends on who the opponent is, too,” Hemer added. “So you might see something for a spread offense that you won’t see for a traditional style offense. Or when you’re playing a spread team, they’ll play something versus a 3-4, not a 4-3. You have to pick and choose and sift through all that to figure out what plays are going to come your way.”
So, just how much did Wisconsin actually show defensively against UMass?
“We showed just as much as we wanted to, I think,” Badgers linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “We only carried a certain amount of calls in, and that’s kind of what we wanted to do. That’s how it’s going to be every game. We’re going to carry a certain number of calls into every game and then we’re going to keep some in our back pocket. Just in case we need this, we need that.”
Despite the lack of tackles for loss, every other number suggests the Badgers were dominant on defense. Wisconsin surrendered just 212 yards of offense, which tied for 12th nationally with Alabama through Week 1. Wisconsin’s passing defense (112 yards) ranks 10th in the country, and the Badgers were able to secure their first interception of the season. It took until Week 6 a year ago for Wisconsin to record an interception.
Another reason Armstrong and Hemer have confidence in their ability to burst into the backfield is the experience of the team’s starters. Wisconsin’s starting front seven has a combined 85.5 career tackles for loss. Senior inside linebacker Chris Borland has the most on the team with 41.5, including 13 sacks, and is one of the most disruptive players in the country. As a point of reference, the NCAA’s active career leader for TFLs is Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, who has 58.5.
Nose guard Beau Allen is next in line on Wisconsin’s team with 13 TFLs, followed by outside linebacker Brendan Kelly (11), defensive end Pat Muldoon (eight), Armstrong (6.5), Hemer (four) and inside linebacker Conor O’Neill (1.5), who will start in place of the injured Derek Landisch this week.
In other words, players and coaches are confident the big plays will come. They’ll continue to fight like crazy to rack up tackles in the backfield, beginning this Saturday against Tennessee Tech.
“We do want to make some plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage,” Andersen said. “We had a couple opportunities. They just kind of popped back up there to the line of scrimmage. Hopefully we can get that swung a little bit in our direction.”