MADISON, Wis — Wisconsin has been dealing with questions about its defense since well before the season started.
As early as July at Big Ten media days, the Badgers were hounded about their fate in the wake of the departure of star defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. It appeared most of the college football world anticipated a long fall from No. 2 in the nation in total defense last season.
It only took the home opener — a 16-14 win over then-No. 5 LSU — for Justin Wilcox to change that narrative.
In the three games since in his first season as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, Wilcox, who came from USC, has coached the Badgers to No. 12 nationally in total defense. His added emphasis on stuffing first downs and attention to individual players’ techniques has helped morph this year’s squad into an undefeated one that has soared to No. 8 in the AP Top 25 — one that is primed for its meeting Saturday with No. 4 Michigan.
A new defensive coordinator did not mean the Badgers were starting over. Aranda, who left for LSU, built something great, and most of the pieces were still there. Wisconsin graduated Joe Schobert and Michael Caputo, but T.J. Watt, Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards were promising next-ups.
They also returned Vince Biegel — senior linebacker, captain and undisputed voice of the team. His impact this season has transcended the box score, but due to a foot injury announced Thursday night the Badgers will be without him for several weeks.
Losing a leader is never timely, but the news about Biegel is especially painful days before the Badgers travel to the Big House. It’ll take all they have learned from Wilcox and then some to fill his void.
“I remember when (Wilcox) came in in the spring, he gave me and T.J. Edwards a couple things to work on,” Cichy, an inside linebacker, told Landof10.com Wednesday. “He said, ‘You guys had great years, and you do a lot of things well, but we want you to do more things well,’ which is extremely encouraging.
“He wanted me to defeat blocks more than kind of just get around them. Some of the stuff with T.J. is just kind of being able to defeat blocks and also make the play.”
The small technical adjustments have yielded massive results. Cichy, who played in all 13 games last year, tallied 13 tackles through the first four in 2015. After four games this season, he leads the team with 23.
Watt, who recorded only seven tackles in his first season at linebacker last year, is now second on the team with 18.
“Through camp and I think through the summer, even through the season, we see drastic improvements,” Cichy said. “It was really cool to have a new perspective and get an extra edge.”
That edge has felt like a wall this year according to Brett Connors. As one of the Badgers starting offensive linemen, the redshirt sophomore clashes with the improved D-line daily in practice.
He much prefers game days, when it’s happening to someone else.
“Everyone across the board (on defense) is stronger and faster,” Connors said. “As the year goes on, you can see those guys get more confidence in themselves and hit those spots better.”
That’s right in line with Wilcox’s messaging. Cichy said the top priority each game has been “getting teams off their schedule.” This comes by hitting harder, yes, but more importantly, smarter.
Using the same 3-4 base scheme Aranda did, but with new ways to blitz, the Badgers rank 22nd in the nation in first-down defense.
“We force them to do what they have to do, not what they want to do,” Cichy said.
Wisconsin’s ability to get to the Michigan ball carriers early and often could be a determining factor Saturday. The Wolverines are used to having things their way, too, and that way is a scary one.
They rank fourth in the country with 52 points per game and average more than 200 yards both rushing and passing. Like Wisconsin, they dominate in time of possession, holding the ball for 32:26 each game to their opponents’ 27:34.
“They’ve got a multitude of things that they do,” Wilcox told reporters Wednesday. “Personnel groupings, shifts, motions. They’ve got obviously skilled players and a great system, so it’ll be a great challenge for us.”
But Cichy and the defense welcome it. The Badgers have limited opponents to 80.5 rushing yards and 196.5 through the air each contest.
In a small, but extremely telling sample size, the Wilcox Way works.
“It’s going to be the same type of game,” Cichy said. “It’s going to be defensive and run-oriented. We just have to buckle up our chin straps and go to work. As a defense, that’s the kind of game we want.”