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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