Dominant defense keeps Badgers in Big Ten race
Just as Louisville is not out of the ACC or playoff picture following the loss to Clemson, the same should hold true with Wisconsin. It is clear at this point that Michigan has the talent to make the playoff, and yet they could only manage a seven-point victory at home against the Badgers, who were without the services of their best player on defense.
While the offensive struggles against Michigan were expected, Wisconsin’s outstanding defensive play was almost enough to overcome a nearly complete inability to move the ball. Now on their bye week, the Badgers will have extra time to prepare for their huge night game at home against Ohio State in Week 7 — where a win would almost certainly propel them back into the top ten and in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten West division.
With Wisconsin maintaining its contender status despite the defeat, it’s worth taking a deeper dive into what’s making their defense one of the strongest individual units in college football. While limiting LSU to just 14 points in week one doesn’t appear to be a spectacular feat in hindsight, limiting a healthy Leonard Fournette certainly is. And while Michigan is certainly better known for its stifling defense (the Badgers know this better than most), the Wolverines still hold the third-highest graded rushing game in the country, even after Wisconsin limited them to 4.1 yards per carry (they averaged 5.9 per tote prior to last weekend’s matchup).
The best LB corps in the Big Ten — and maybe the country
The defense has accomplished everything up to this point because of major contribution, but the main catalyst is the LB corps. The only EDGE defenders to grade better than Wisconsin OLB Vince Biegel last year were Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Georgia’s Leonard Floyd — both 2015 top-10 draft picks — and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, who are both expected to be top-10 selections in this coming April’s draft. While Biegel’s foot surgery last week kept him out of the Michigan game and limited his effectiveness in September (more on his status in a bit), the rest of the corps has elevated it’s play a higher level.
T.J. Watt (yes, the younger brother of J.J.) is in just his second year at outside linebacker after converting from tight end last year, but is already playing at an all-conference level. He leads the Badgers with four sacks and 18 total defensive stops (he had a sack and five stops against Michigan), and currently leads all Big Ten EDGE players in stops and solo tackles. With Biegel shelved, inside backer Jack Cichy took on a bigger role on the pass rush against Michigan and had an outstanding day with two sacks, four total pressures and six total stops. Garrett Dooley made his first career start last Saturday, and was extremely productive in his own right, as he notched four pressures and four stops. Add steady inside backer T.J. Edwards to the mix, and the quartet of backers racked up for sacks, 11 total pressures and 19 stops with just one missed tackle. There isn’t another LB corps in the country getting this type of production, period — let alone against the caliber of talent Wisconsin has faced thus far.
The secondary is also playing at a high level, led by the safety duo of Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon. Against Michigan they combined to give up catches on just two of the six passes where one of them was the primary defender, and each broke up a pass. Opposing QBs have a passer rating of 10.9 when targeting Muso’s assignments this season, the second-best figure in the Big Ten at his position. While Derrick Tindal was beaten by Michigan WR Amara Darboh for the game winning touchdown, he has otherwise had a strong season. Against LSU and Michigan State he gave up just five catches on 13 targets for just 52 yards, breaking up and intercepting a pass in each of the matchups. He is currently tied with Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore for most total passes defended with seven.
While the defensive line doesn’t have the big grades of the linebackers, its primary function is to absorb blockers to prevent them from getting to the linebackers, and the unit is clearly doing an excellent job of keeping its second level free. DT Alec James leads the line with three sacks and six stops, and the unit as a whole has accumulated 19 total stops thus far with no missed tackles.
The big picture of Vince Biegel’s injury
The Big Ten Scheduling Overlords did Wisconsin no favors this year, as the Badgers drew the three presumed top teams from the Big Ten East division — Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, the latter two being road trips. Meanwhile, Iowa only has to play one of the three — a home matchup against the Wolverines — while the Cornhuskers travel to Columbus in November but avoid both Michigan schools. To make matters worse, the Badgers of course drew all three games consecutively.
With this in mind, it was imperative the Badgers find a way to win one of the three difficult East matchups in order to keep pace with the top of its division. This made the news of Biegel’s cracked foot all the more troubling, as missing its best player could have spelled the end of Wisconsin’s Big Ten championship game hopes. According to Biegel’s father, they’d known it had been an issue for several weeks (which may explain why he produced just three total pressures in Weeks 2 and 3 against Akron and Georgia State), thus it stands to reason that while he didn’t have X-rays taken until last week, the star linebacker and his coaches decided to try to play through it for at least one of the big three games.
Obviously this strategy worked out well, as not only did they beat the Spartans in Week 4 but Biegel didn’t damage his foot further, as the operation was to simply insert a screw to secure the crack. The initial expectation was that he would be out two to four weeks, an outage made easier to stomach by the bye this week. Looking at his best-case scenario, he could be available for the Ohio State game next week in Madison, but at the very least should be available for the Badgers’ huge back-to-back matchups against the Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers later this month. While the Wisconsin defense proved against Michigan it can still perform at a very high level even without its star, his presence means the Badgers have a reasonable shot at running the table and getting to Indianapolis in December.