On the beat: Wisconsin football will go as far as its defense allows next season
The greatest offensive unit in Wisconsin football history averaged 44.1 points per game, featured nine starters who became NFL draft picks, two top-10 Heisman Trophy finishers and a dynamic run-pass balance capable of scoring touchdowns on any possession.
What the greatest offensive unit in Wisconsin football history didn’t have was a great defense.
That 2011 Wisconsin team, led by quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball, managed to lose three games in which the Badgers’ D surrendered an average of 38.3 points and 459 total yards. Wisconsin lost on a last-second Hail Mary to Michigan State and a last-minute pass against Ohio State during the regular season. Oregon then raced all over the field to beat Wisconsin 45-38 in the Rose Bowl.
That season provides further proof that a football team will only go as far as its defense will take it. And it’s worth remembering now as Wisconsin begins preparations for the 2018 season.
Wisconsin is set to return 20 of its 22 offensive players from the season ending two-deep. That group includes three All-America offensive linemen, a running back who finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman, a quarterback who threw the second-most touchdown passes in a single season at Wisconsin behind Wilson and four talented playmakers at wide receiver.
Wisconsin has an opportunity to compile some impressive offensive statistics, near the level of the 2011 team. But it hardly will matter in the grand scheme of things unless the Badgers’ young and untested defense can quickly mature.
The biggest question mark for Wisconsin comes in the secondary, where the Badgers will have to replace three of their four starters from a 13-1 Orange Bowl-winning team. Cornerbacks Derrick Tindal and Nick Nelson are gone, as is safety Natrell Jamerson. Those three players combined to record 114 tackles with 4 interceptions. Nelson set the single-season school record with 21 pass breakups and then left school after his junior season to declare for the NFL draft.
Wisconsin will be replacing those three players with a projected starting group that tallied 31 tackles. Cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams is the most experienced of the three after serving as the team’s third cornerback last season and recording 30 tackles with 6 pass breakups and 1 interception.
Madison Cone, the other projected cornerback starter, played in 9 games and made 1 tackle. Safety Patrick Johnson appeared in 4 games before sustaining a right arm injury and missing the remainder of the year. He’ll complement D’Cota Dixon, who is the only returning starter on the back end. Wisconsin’s backups at all four positions didn’t record a tackle last season.
While there are huge questions in the secondary, Wisconsin also must retool its defensive line. The Badgers lose three senior defensive ends: Alec James, Chikwe Obasih and Conor Sheehy. Isaiahh Loudermilk is a sure bet to earn one starting spot. Garrett Rand could move from nose guard to earn the other starting spot.
Billy Hirschfeld took time away from the team last season for personal reasons, and there hasn’t been any announcement regarding his future. But he would be the most experienced defensive end in the bunch and has appeared in 25 career games. The line will be vital in opening up avenues for linebackers and stuffing the run.
Last season, Wisconsin’s defense carried the team for lengthy stretches and routinely bailed out the Badgers’ offense for turnovers. Wisconsin ranked No. 2 in total defense, No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 3 in rushing defense and No. 5 in pass defense. Wisconsin presumably will make fewer offensive mistakes given the returning personnel. But the defense also will have less of a margin for error. Wisconsin is likely to lean heavily on its veteran group of inside linebackers, as well as a fairly solid outside linebacker unit led by Andrew Van Ginkel.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will have his toughest task yet entering his third season as a college coach. If he can mold the unit into a confident group that matures faster than its experience level would indicate, the Badgers will have an opportunity to thrive.
If not, then another great Wisconsin offense could be stymied by an inconsistent defense.