INDIANAPOLIS — When Paul Chryst coordinated Wisconsin’s offense to a pair of Big Ten titles in 2010 and 2011, he competed every day against a traditional 4-3 defense that ranked among the nation’s top 25 in both points allowed and yards allowed.
Chryst left in 2012, and by 2013 the Badgers switched from a bludgeoning 4-3 to a surgical, yet equally physical, 3-4 scheme. Instead of taking a step back on defense, the Badgers have thrived. Even dominated.
“They play at such a high intensity the whole game,” former Iowa tight end George Kittle said. “You’ve got guys, they feed off each other so easily. We throw an incomplete pass, and it’s like they won the Super Bowl on every play. That’s what they do. They are so high intensity. When they get rolling, they’re one of the best teams you could possibly see.”
Since moving to the 3-4, Wisconsin has produced perhaps the nation’s most consistent high-level defense. In the 4 seasons with the 3-4, Wisconsin has ranked no lower than seventh nationally in yards allowed. Only once did the Badgers finish worse than sixth in points allowed.
It’s a ferocious, destructive scheme that confuses opposing blockers and allows edge rushers the freedom to see, attack and make plays. They are productive, and they are destructive.
“I think that stems from the scheme that we have and the type of level of play that you allow the outside linebackers to have,” said former Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel, a likely NFL draft pick in two weeks. “In our outside linebacker position room, (outside linebackers coach) Tim Tibesar talks about the freedom that we have and the responsibility that we have to make plays for our team. I think (former Wisconsin linebacker) Joe Schobert, myself, T.J. Watt … we’re starting a trend.”
Shifting from the 4-3
Through 2012, Wisconsin employed a traditional 4-3 defense with hulking defensive linemen in the mold of J.J. Watt and traditional cleanup linebackers such as Mike Taylor and Chris Borland. The Badgers had a top 16 defense in both yards and points allowed in 2011 and 2012.
Then defensive-minded Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas and was replaced by Gary Andersen, who brought in Dave Aranda as defensive coordinator. Aranda implemented the 3-4, which instantly became productive.
Biegel played middle and strongside linebacker under then-defensive coordinator and current Rutgers coach Chris Ash in 2012. Biegel shifted to the outside in 2013 and instantly loved the scheme. In his final 3 seasons, Biegel had 36.5 tackles for loss.
Wisconsin often incorporates 2 or 3 down linemen with 2 stand-up linebackers playing defensive end. The outside defenders are in constant attack mode. They’re not required to always play contain or hold the edge. Sometimes they have the flexibility to dart in an unconventional direction to make a play.
The outside speed and pace is both confusing for opponents and dynamic in action. Wisconsin perimeter defenders are smaller than their predecessors but more elusive in generating tackles for loss and rushing the passer. Biegel, Schobert and T.J. Watt (J.J.’s younger brother) range from 235 to 245 pounds while J.J. Watt weighed 285 pounds as a senior.
|Seasons||Points allowed/ranking||Yards allowed/ranking||Alignment|
|2016||15.6/ 4||301.4/ 7||3-4|
|2015||13.7/ 1||268.5/ 2||3-4|
|2014||20.8/ 17||294.1/ 4||3-4|
|2013||16.3/ 6||305.1/ 7||3-4|
|2012||19.1/ 16||322.6/ 15||4-3|
|2011||19.0/ 13||316.3/ 15||4-3|
|2010||20.5/ 25||321.8/ 20||4-3|
|2009||21.8/ 33||305.7/ 17||4-3|
“They’re basically tight ends playing defensive end,” Kittle said. “They’re shifty, they’re super quick. They’re not slow guys just trying to set an edge; they’re trying to come through your face and trying to spin around you. It’s a totally different thing, especially pass blocking them. It’s a totally different animal. That’s just one of the biggest challenges because you don’t know what they’re going to do.
“They have help outside at all times. Like you’re in an outside zone and if I don’t want to go that way, I’m just going to slip you. It’s crazy because they have the freedom to do whatever they want. That’s what makes it so hard. Most defenses, an end has contain so you know what it’s going to look like. These guys, they can go through your face, they can go inside, they can go outside. They have free will. That’s one of the biggest challenges. You have to play off them.”
In 2015, Wisconsin ranked first nationally in points allowed at 13.7 and allowed its 6 Big Ten West opponents a total of 9 offensive touchdowns. In a dazzling performance that earned him the co-Big Ten defensive player of the week award, Schobert recorded 3 sacks, forced 2 fumbles and picked up 5 quarterback pressures in a 10-6 loss against Iowa. The Hawkeyes gained 69 yards in the second half, and Schobert was unblockable.
“They’re coached almost perfectly,” Iowa tackle Boone Myers said. “They have really good technique, really good fundamentals and they’re physical and they have heart. When you put all those together, that’s a heck of a defense.”
“When they get rolling, they’re one of the best teams you could possibly see,” said Kittle, who scored the game’s only touchdown in 2015. “I think what they do really well, especially Biegel, Schobert — he was an animal — Watt, too, they’re high-energy guys. They’re always in your face. All they want to do is wear you down.”
Keeping the 3-4
When Chryst returned to Wisconsin as head coach before the 2015 season, he kept the 3-4 scheme. He couldn’t argue against its success, plus it aided in recruiting.
“They’ve been in the system and that first year, Dave Aranda coordinated and it was a way to keep continuity and I think it fits with our recruiting and who we target,” Chryst said. “In particular, some of the kids we can get in-state that we can kind of find a niche in the 3-4.
“The reason I like it is I think it fits the players we have, first and foremost, and I think recruiting to it, there’s some advantages for us specifically. We’ve got coaches who know it and understand it and players that have grown up in it.”
Other West Division opponents such as Minnesota and Iowa envision 260-pound defensive ends. Wisconsin recruits players who are built like power forwards in basketball.
“He really does like the 3-4 defense because of the guys we recruit,” said Biegel, who hails from Wisconsin Rapids. “A lot of Wisconsin kids are guys we can develop. We’ve got good, solid … linebackers on the outside and inside positions, guys who can play both of those spots. It’s hard to find, in Wisconsin, a huge 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end. But you’re finding 220-pound linebackers that we can play inside or outside.”
The scheme causes mismatches and the players’ unpredictability forces opponents to watch more video. Iowa’s offensive linemen said their walk-through takes more time while preparing for the Badgers.
“They really do a great job of bringing guys from out of nowhere,” Iowa guard Sean Welsh said. “They come in and do a great job. It’s a game-plan thing. It requires a lot of film study and focus.”
Perhaps most impressive is Wisconsin has maintained its scheme and excellence despite high turnover. Aranda left the Badgers after 2015 for LSU. Aranda’s replacement, Justin Wilcox, was named California’s head coach this offseason. Now former Badgers 3-time All-America safety Jim Leonhard — who tied a school record with 21 interceptions in the Badgers’ 4-3 defense — leads the next version of the Badgers’ 3-4 defense.
“I’m expecting great things,” Biegel said, “and I don’t expect the Badger defense to take any steps back next year.”