Badgers season report card: Defense and coaching

Defensive end Chikwe Obasih (left center), linebacker Marcus Trotter (right center) and the Badgers' defense ranked fourth nationally in total defense this season.

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There were moments of complete domination sandwiched around missed tackles and blown assignments. But for those looking to quantify the performance of Wisconsin’s defense this season, some numbers should stand out to demonstrate just how successful the Badgers were in 2014.

Consider that Wisconsin ranked fourth nationally in total defense despite losing its entire starting front seven from one year ago. UW held four opponents to fewer than 200 yards — a mark surpassed by only Clemson. And the Badgers allowed the fewest plays of 10-plus yards per game in the country.

All in all, it was a defensive year to remember. Here is my season-ending report card for Wisconsin’s defense and coaching staff.

Defensive line: B

The first game of the season should have been an indicator that nothing would come easily for Wisconsin’s defensive line. In that game against LSU, nose guard Warren Herring injured his knee on the final play of the third quarter and missed the next five games. Defensive end Konrad Zagzebski, meanwhile, was hit on the head, lost feeling on the left side of his body and was carted off the field.

Zagzebski somehow came back a week later, and Herring returned in time to be a factor during Big Ten play. Both those seniors were the catalysts on a defensive line that was relatively young otherwise.

Herring’s numbers were not particularly eye-popping, but he knew how to take up space in the middle of Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. He finished with 17 tackles, including two for a loss — although last season, while splitting reps with Beau Allen, he recorded 17 tackles with six for a loss, including four sacks. This season, Zagzebski tallied 18 tackles and a sack.

Wisconsin’s two most effective tacklers on the D-line this season had never even appeared in a college game before 2014. Chikwe Obasih wowed coaches during spring ball and took nicely to a starting spot. He finished with 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks. And Arthur Goldberg showed his talent as a nose guard, stepping in well for Herring during his injury. Goldberg led all linemen with 25 tackles.

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Alec James and Jake Keefer both saw limited and action and will be relied on even more next season. James and Keefer each finished the year with eight tackles.

Linebackers: A

Losing a once-in-a-decade player like Chris Borland is never easy to replace. His hustle, determination (and 112 tackles last season) simply could not be filled by one player. Fortunately for Wisconsin, the collection of its parts proved to be every bit as good.

Fifth-year senior Marcus Trotter finally earned his opportunity to step into the spotlight as a starter, and he did not disappoint. Trotter finished second on the team in total tackles with 93, including 12.0 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Some fans believed he was too slow to adequately fulfill his duties as a middle linebacker. But his intelligence kept generally kept him one step ahead of the offense because he knew where plays were headed.

Fellow senior Derek Landisch played nicely off Trotter in the middle as well. His 84 tackles ranked third on the team, he ranked in tackles for a loss (16.0) and first in sacks (9.0). Landisch was so impressive this season disrupting plays in the backfield that he earned first-team all-Big Ten honors.

On the outside, Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel formed quite a pair. Their personalities are entirely different — Biegel is the wild man in the bunch, while Schobert is more reserved. On the field, however, they represented a scary duo. Schobert recorded 69 tackles with 13.5 for a loss. Biegel tallied 56 tackles, a team-best 16.5 tackles for a loss and was second in sacks with 7.5. With those two players returning next season, Wisconsin’s linebacker group has two leaders it can count on.

Another linebacker worth mentioning is Leon Jacobs, who presumably will step into one of the starting inside roles next season. Jacobs recorded 28 tackles, but he was fantastic against Illinois when he made his first career start in place of an injured Marcus Trotter. In that game, Jacobs tallied 12 tackles, including 2.0 for a loss and 1.5 sacks.

Cornerbacks: B-minus

Darius Hillary emerged as the team’s shutdown cornerback this season and became so effective that teams didn’t throw in his direction for stretches of play. Hillary tallied 41 tackles with five pass breakups and three tackles for a loss. And the most encouraging sign about Hillary and the rest of the cornerbacks to see significant playing time is that they’ll all be back next season.

The biggest head-scratcher this year was the play of Sojourn Shelton, who unexpectedly regressed his sophomore season. Shelton was an all-Big Ten honorable mention pick as a freshman and even earned preseason first-team all-conference honors by The Sporting News. But he never as able to make the plays he did a year ago, and he went from recording four interceptions to zero. This from a guy who acknowledged mid-season he had hoped to tally eight interceptions. Shelton did finish with 33 tackles and six pass breakups. And to his credit, he said the struggles he endured this season could be good for him in the long run to understand what is necessary to excel consistently as a college cornerback.

The other two cornerbacks to contribute in a meaningful way this season were Devin Gaulden and Derrick Tindal. Gaulden finally earned the opportunity to play after missing two seasons because of ACL injuries. He tallied nine tackles and two pass breakups, while Tindal had 10 tackles and a sack.

Badgers Coverage

It should be noted that Wisconsin’s cornerbacks finished an entire season without recording a single interception as a group. Of Wisconsin’s six interceptions, four belonged to safeties and two went to linebackers. That’s quite a statistical oddity — and one the cornerbacks certainly would like to fix next season.

Safeties: B-plus

Let’s start with Michael Caputo because his toughness and talent deserve mention first. Coaches anticipated Caputo moving down to play outside linebacker way back in spring camp, but his value at safety was undeniable. Ultimately, Caputo was able to play all over the field and became one of the rare safeties capable of leading a team in tackles. He finished with a team-best 106 tackles with six pass breakups, an interception and a sack.

Peniel Jean, a consummate team player, moved from cornerback to free safety and was very effective. He ranked fifth on the team with 59 tackles and actually led the Badgers with two interceptions. Throw in Lubern Figaro, and the unit was pretty effective. Figaro had his ups and downs as any freshman does, but he finished with 24 tackles and an interception.

With Jean using up his eligibility, the questions is whether Tanner McEvoy will step in and fill that role next season. McEvoy played his first game at safety all season in the Outback Bowl and recorded five tackles. His skill at the position is undeniable, even if he still has hopes of playing quarterback in the future.

Coaching

Gary Andersen: B-minus

Could Andersen have handled some situations better this season? You bet. The confusion about Melvin Gordon’s supposed hip flexor in the season opener against LSU was not a good look for Andersen. Neither was his handling of the Joel Stave situation. Issuing a press release he knew was not accurate and then retracting some of those statements later in the same day when Stave disclosed his mental block made Andersen look foolish — even though he was trying to protect Stave from further ridicule.

The spotlight certainly was bigger at Wisconsin than it was at Utah State, and that seemed to make Andersen uncomfortable at times. And Badgers fans can easily take shots at Andersen, particularly now that he’s at Oregon State.

But let’s be clear on what he did accomplish. He helped guide Wisconsin to seven consecutive victories and a Big Ten West title. Nebraska and Iowa had similar aspirations in the final month of the season, but only Wisconsin captured the division. Yes, the Ohio State defeat was an embarrassment. Still, Andersen won 10 games this season before his departure and led the Badgers to yet another New Year’s Day bowl game. There were years in which fans would have loved for Wisconsin to achieve that just once every decade.

Offensive coaching: B

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Wisconsin finished the season averaging 34.6 points per game, which will go down as the fourth-best mark in program history. A year ago in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s first season, the Badgers averaged 34.8 points per game. UW fans can argue all they want that this Wisconsin offense could have coached itself with Gordon on the field and that anybody could have led the Badgers to this much success. But Ludwig deserved credit for what he accomplished in two seasons before he headed to Vanderbilt.

Gordon was the best running back in college football, and the Badgers took every opportunity to utilize his skills. His 2,587 rushing yards rank second for a single-season in FBS history. And Wisconsin’s 4,482 team rushing yards is the best mark in program history.

There’s no question the quarterback situation could have been handled differently, but we may never know who actually pulled the trigger on that decision: Andersen or Ludwig? It’s possible Ludwig simply had to follow orders when Andersen wanted Tanner McEvoy. Joel Stave lost his confidence, Ludwig had a mess on his hands, and he still managed to find a way to make a two-quarterback system work during Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak.

In hindsight, of course the quarterbacks could have played better and Ludwig could have tried to hide their flaws even further. But Ludwig did an excellent job with the pieces he had in place while at Wisconsin.

Defensive coaching: A-minus

Bringing in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was the greatest decision Gary Andersen made during his two years at Wisconsin. Aranda is a brilliant mind that can make difficult defensive concepts easily relatable to players, who genuinely seem to love playing for him. And this season, Aranda made the Badgers’ 3-4 defense a real force.

Wisconsin ranked fourth in total defense (294.1), fourth in pass defense (168.0) 17th in scoring defense (20.8 points) and No. 23 in rushing defense (126.1 yards per game). The Badgers also increased their sack total from 26 a year ago to 37. Aranda became such a respected and successful coach that he had his share of programs courting him for other jobs, though he will return to Wisconsin for a third season.

Don’t let Wisconsin’s 59-0 loss to Ohio State taint your perspective on what this defense was able to accomplish. It was one poor performance against a team that is playing for the national championship. Wisconsin’s starters allowed two touchdowns in three games during the Badgers’ seven-game winning streak and were as big of a reason as any this team won 11 games for the third time in five seasons.

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