MINNEAPOLIS — Few anticipated how difficult it would be for the University of Wisconsin football team to score points this season, but there is another way to look at that offensive futility.
It could have been worse.
If UW hadn’t fielded one of the stingiest defenses in school history, its record would be well below 8-3. On the other hand, had the offense been able to punch it in from the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter of their two Big Ten Conference defeats, the Badgers would be 10-1 with their only loss coming to No. 2 Alabama.
It was the defense that gave them that chance. UW committed four turnovers in its 10-6 loss to third-ranked Iowa and five more in its 13-7 loss to 17th-ranked Northwestern, yet it still had a chance to win both right up until the final whistle.
Should UW keep Minnesota’s suspect but improving offense in check during their season-ending Big Ten game today at TCF Bank Stadium, it will cement its status as one of the school’s great defenses, if not the greatest. And that’s saying something because UW has fielded some dominant defenses over the years, especially during the 1950s and early 1960s and since the mid-1990s.
UW’s defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in points and yards allowed during coordinator Dave Aranda’s first two seasons, but the unit has taken it to a new level this season, mostly because it has been so consistent. Small but athletic, the defense is allowing 12.4 points per game, the nation’s best mark, and ranks fourth in total defense, giving up 266.3 yards per game. The Badgers are fifth in the nation in passing yards allowed and sixth in rushing yards allowed.
About the only place the defense has fallen down is in takeaways. It has forced only 15 turnovers, which ranks 82nd among the 127 FBS teams.
“I think what’s made our defense special is it’s got a lot of the necessary components,” first-year UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I think Dave does a great job of coordinating and designing it. I think our defensive staff, especially in a short time, has come together and they work really well with each other. Now that’s just one component. Then, I think, the key is getting our players to understand what we’re trying to do. Now you put on top of that, I think we’ve got some really good players doing it. So I think anytime you’ve got a good scheme and good players, you’ve got a chance. And I think now they’re playing with an edge.”
Led by outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel and a steady veteran secondary, UW stops the run, puts heat on the passer and gives up few deep balls. Alabama dinged the unit for 35 points in the opener, but since then UW has allowed 101 points in 10 games. Better yet, only 31 of those 101 points came in the second half.
“This year, they’ve been as good as any defense I’ve seen,” UW quarterback Joel Stave said. “I think the scheme that coach Aranda has is just tough. It makes it tough on quarterbacks, it makes it tough to run the ball and I think he does a great job of putting guys like Schobert and Biegel in position to get after the quarterback. I think the way that he schemes up his defense is really what makes it tough.”
As tough as the other great defenses in UW history? You be the judge.
- The gold standard for UW defenses is the 1951 unit known as the “Hard Rocks.” The Badgers allowed 6.6 points, 66.8 rushing yards and 154.8 yards per game in going 7-1-1. The only team to score more than seven points on UW was Big Ten champion Illinois, which had 14, and the defense famously outscored UW’s opponents 58-53 for the season. The unit had All-Americans in Pat O’Donahue, Hal Faverty and Ed Withers plus a future All-American in Don Voss. Faverty, O’Donahue and Deral Teteak played in the NFL.
- The forgotten defense among UW’s best was the 1958 unit. UW went 7-1-1 and the defense allowed a Big Ten-best 77 points in seven conference games. Led by future NFL safety Dale Hackbart, who had a school-record seven interceptions, UW allowed only 8.6 points per game for the season.
- The best of coach Barry Alvarez’s defenses was the 1998 group that got UW back to the Rose Bowl. The unit was first in the nation with 11.9 points allowed and fourth with 292.6 yards allowed per game. It ranked third in rushing defense, sixth in pass-efficiency defense and seventh with 18 interceptions. Six starters — Tom Burke, Ross Kolodziej, Donnell Thompson, Mike Echols, Jason Doering and Jamar Fletcher — each logged at least four years in the NFL.
- Coach Bret Bielema’s first team went 12-1 and was led by a defense that ranked second nationally with 12.1 points allowed and fifth with 253.1 yards allowed per game. Among the starters, Nick Hayden, Matt Shaughnessy, DeAndre Levy, Jonathan Casillas, Roderick Rogers and Jack Ikegwuonu all played — or are still playing — in the NFL.
Of course, it’s difficult to compare eras. In 1951, Illinois led the Big Ten in scoring with 22.0 points per game. This year, that would rank 13th, ahead of only Northwestern.
But UW’s defense is really good, and today’s game against Minnesota would be a good time to prove it.