CHICAGO — When the caller ID flashed, Vince Biegel’s heart sank. The way a cannonball sinks when it’s dropped in the middle of a pond.
“And Dave doesn’t call very often, OK?” Wisconsin’s senior outside linebacker recalled at Big Ten Media Days. “And when he was calling, I knew it wasn’t a very good phone call.”
It wasn’t. Aranda, the Badgers’ venerated defensive coordinator had rung one of his defensive lynchpins back in January to tell him the news: He was leaving Madison to take the same job at LSU.
“I walked into a quiet room,” Biegel said. “Because I knew it was about to be a conversation that I was going to remember for a while.”
Biegel, the Badgers’ returning sack leader (eight), respectfully declined to share the finer points of the discussion. But you figure those points are going to be fresh in his mind again in the weeks to come, given the first date on Wisconsin’s 2016 dance card is the Bayou Bengals on Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
Why, hello there, Dave.
Old friends. New grudges.
“But I really do have tremendous respect for Dave Aranda,” Biegel continued. “I said back then, ‘I would take a bullet for him.’ And if was playing on his defense, I still would.”
Except he isn’t. The Badgers are in the purview of Justin Wilcox now, the former USC defensive coordinator whose work at Boise State was highly regarded, even if the returns have come off as more of a mixed bag in the coaching stops after that.
From 2013 through 2015, Bucky quietly fielded one of the best defensive units on the planet, with Aranda’s unconventional packages and stunts creating all kinds of holy heck along Monroe Street. Over the past three autumns, only one Big Ten defense finished among the top six nationally in scoring defense and rushing defense in the same season more than once — and it was Aranda’s in Madison.
So does familiarity breed contempt? Or a mismatch?
“I think that, to me, it’s still different,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst countered. “We’re going to be different than what we were last year. And what LSU will do will be different than what we did last year.
“I’ll never forget: We had a stretch where we played Michigan State a bunch. We knew them, they knew us. Iowa, with them, when (late defensive coordinator) Norm (Parker) was there, I knew what he was going to do, he knew what I was going to do. I think it’s a little bit different from that.”
While Chryst was the Badgers’ offensive coordinator under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema from 2005 through 2011, Wisconsin went 3-3 against Michigan State and 3-3 versus Iowa. Bucky averaged 32.7 points per game against the Spartans over that span but just 18 per contest against the Hawkeyes.
In other words, a push.
“In the end, it’s LSU-Wisconsin and coaches will have them (ready),” Chryst said. “The game will be played by the players, between the lines. You know, it’s going to be a big story, but I don’t know (how big). Yeah, it’ll have an impact, but I don’t know if anyone will have the upper hand.”
If he knows that you know what he knows, he knows to try something different. If that make sense.
So expect the unexpected. And if anyone relishes in changing things up midstream, it’s Aranda.
“He comes up with different, unique blitzes, different types of packages that the common defensive coordinator necessarily wouldn’t,” said Biegel, who thrived under that unorthodox approach. “But I honestly and truly mean this I’m more (about) looking forward to playing for Coach Wilcox. Being able to see who he was as a coordinator and who he was a person this spring, we’re extremely comfortable with him already.”
In Madison, it’s about turning the page, and quickly. The Badgers’ first nine opponents all played in bowl games a year ago. And five of the first six tests on the Big Ten side of the menu won at least 10 games in 2015.
“And I’m excited for our players,” Chryst said. “I remember Vince, when we recruited him. Vince said he (when) went to Wisconsin, he pictured playing against Michigan State, pictured playing against Michigan and Ohio State. And I think your really good players, they love playing against the best. And I think your young players grow up and they learn. I think that’s what a lot of our players need, to be honest with you.”
Even if that means learning on the fly. The hard way.
“The storylines are really endless on this one, with Coach Aranda coaching against us,” Biegel chuckled. “But for me, whether Coach Aranda was here or not, it just doesn’t change how I prepare. I prepare at a very high level. I’m focused on what I need to do.”
With that, he grinned.
“I’ll say this,” Biegel continued, slyly. “It does put a little bit of a chip on my shoulder to go out there and play a little bit harder for the (guys) back home.”
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler