Underappreciated ‘no-name’ Badgers defense ready to prove itself again

Wisconsin's defensive players, like leading tackler Michael Caputo, didn't get many postseason accolades. And so Saturday once again represents an opportunity to prove themselves on a big stage, even if the numbers should speak for themselves. 

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Dave Aranda doesn’t care much for college football awards when they involve himself. As Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, his success is a direct result of his players’ preparation and on-field performance. But ask Aranda about individual accolades when they involve his players, and he’ll strike a much different tone.

Wisconsin is, after all, one of only three teams to rank among the top 10 nationally in all four major defensive categories. And surely that work, he figures, deserves to be recognized. So when Aranda saw this week that not a single Wisconsin player earned first-team all-Big Ten honors in the media vote — and only one did so in the coaches vote — he made a point to meet with his group and let them know how underappreciated they really are.

"I think if there was any possible thought out there that we had lost our edge, I would hope that would get it back," Aranda said. "I feel bad for the kids because I think they deserve better. We’ll use it as a positive."

No. 13 Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1) plays No. 5 Ohio State (11-1, 8-0) on Saturday night in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. The Buckeyes rank fifth nationally in scoring offense (44.1 points per game) and have been a juggernaut nearly all season, though they may bring a different look with new starting quarterback Cardale Jones.

It is, once again, an opportunity for the Badgers’ defense to prove itself on a big stage, even if the numbers should speak for themselves.

Badgers safety Michael Caputo leads the team in tackles with 93. He was not a first-team pick by the coaches or the media. Linebacker Marcus Trotter ranks second on the team in total tackles (75) and has been the glue that holds the front seven together. He wasn’t even a second-team pick. Linebacker Vince Biegel leads the team in tackles for loss (15.5) and ranks second in sacks (7.5). He, too, was not a first-team selection.

"I feel like this defense hasn’t been getting credit all year," Biegel said. "It’s always been challenged. It’s, ‘We’ve gone against weak offensive components.’ I feel like they’ve had a lot of excuses for us, and yet again, I don’t think guys got the recognition. Especially with Marcus Trotter.

"I think he could have gotten a lot higher than honorable mention, and the same with Joe Schobert and many others. I’m going to let all the off-the-field things take care of itself. And we’re going to go out there and play great Wisconsin defense."

Perhaps this is what Badgers head coach Gary Andersen meant when he referred to his defense this week as "the no-name crew." Wisconsin does not possess the individual star power that wows people on highlight reels. The Badgers don’t have Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, the defensive player of the year, or interception machine William Likely at Maryland. They don’t have first-round NFL Draft picks like Nebraska’s Randy Gregory or Michigan State’s Trae Waynes and Shilique Calhoun.

But what they do have is a collection of players that play for each other and have shown that success is based on the sum of their parts. Wisconsin opened the season with seven new starters on its front seven, which caused some to wonder whether UW’s defense could hold up over a long season. Yet the Badgers have improved their total defense by an astounding 45 yards per game, on average, over last year.

"Throughout this whole season, we’ve been doubted," said Badgers linebacker Derek Landisch, the only first-team defensive pick in the bunch. "The media wrote us off from day one that we couldn’t be as good or better of a defense from last year’s defense. It’s nothing new to us, and we’re just going to put it in our back pocket and use it for motivation. We’re going to play with a lot of passion on Saturday."

This season, Wisconsin ranks second in total defense (260.3 yards per game), fourth in scoring defense (16.8), eighth in rushing defense (103.8) and second in passing defense (156.6). The starters allowed two touchdowns in the span of three games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue. The following week, Wisconsin held Nebraska two touchdowns below its season scoring average.

Among Wisconsin’s defensive starters, Biegel is the only player who rated better than a three-star recruit out of high school, according to Scout.com. And Biegel believes the mindset of being often overlooked for his teammates carries over to the field.

"We’ve had some guys who are two- to three-star recruits," Biegel said. "Not a lot of highly recruited guys, not highly touted coming out of high school. Kind of a bunch of, per se, white farmer guys who strap on their helmets and go out there and play Wisconsin defense."

To illustrate the importance of teamwork over individual stardom, Aranda said he recently showed his defense highlights of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs passing the basketball. The Spurs would pass six, seven times before exhausting the opponent and scoring. Yes, San Antonio has a future Hall of Famer or two. But that’s far from the reason the Spurs have won five NBA championships in 15 years, and the message Aranda wanted to send was clear.

"The guy with the cleanest, most open shot takes the shot," Aranda said. "It’s much different from some basketball teams when you put it in the hands of someone at mid-court and they clear the floor, count down the seconds and he takes his 1-on-1. We pass the ball."

And, in turn, pass the defensive success all the way around, postseason awards be darned.

"Being the no-name crew is fine," Landisch said. "As long as we’re going out there on Saturdays and winning football games, that’s all we honestly care about."

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