We knew Jim Leonhard had plenty more in the playbook than he showed in his first few games as a defensive coordinator, and the University of Wisconsin’s Big Ten opener against Northwestern on Saturday felt like the right time to reveal what the Badgers’ defense might really look like this season.
After staying vanilla the first three games and still comfortably handling the likes of Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU, Leonhard unleashed plenty against the Wildcats that we hadn’t seen, and the Badgers harassed Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson all day long.
UW sacked Thorson eight times and had chances for many more. This wasn’t about being reckless or overly aggressive, though. Leonhard blitzed thoughtfully, picked his spots and found a variety of ways to get his players in the backfield.
The Badgers actually rushed five or more players on just six occasions. Leonhard, though, still helped get his outside linebackers and defensive linemen into one-on-one situations. The video below shows an example of that, where UW overloaded one side of the Wildcats’ line.
The right tackle didn’t even lay a finger on anyone here. Taking him completely out of the play limited the numbers advantage Northwestern had in protection. Garret Dooley blew up their other tackle, who looked confused about which player he’d ultimately be responsible for picking up, and the tight end wanted no part of Isaiahh Loudermilk one-on-one.
The Badgers also sometimes crowded players near the line of scrimmage when they weren’t blitzing, leaving Northwestern unsure of which defenders would drop back into coverage and where the pressure would be coming from once the Wildcats snapped the ball.
UW stayed in nickel for the large majority of this game — Dontye Carriere-Williams played on 65 of 82 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus — and that left Leonhard more free to bring the Badgers’ speedy defensive backs after Thorson.
There were eight plays Saturday in which UW blitzed a defensive back, and more than half of those resulted in a sack or a pressure.
In the majority of those eight plays, including the first two videos above, the defensive back was one of just four players rushing. Still, those type of pressures can often be difficult to spot pre-snap and even harder to handle if you don’t leave a back in to help protect — something Northwestern didn’t do too often outside of third-and-long situations. Take the first video for example. Even if the left tackle spotted Nick Nelson coming, would he really be quick enough to do anything about it?
This type of creativity did die down once Natrell Jamerson’s pick-six gave UW a 31-10 lead in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats left a running back or tight end in to protect Thorson on just three of his 20 dropbacks during their two late touchdown drives, but the Badgers couldn’t take advantage as often.
UW probably relaxed a bit both physically and schematically once it appeared the game was out of reach. Tyler Johnson even got reps at outside linebacker on the drive following Jamerson’s touchdown. It served as a good learning lesson in a winning effort, but I’d argue Northwestern wouldn't have moved down the field in that manner if the Badgers were up by just one score.
Despite the final five-plus minutes, there’s reason to be encouraged by UW’s defensive performance Saturday. Arguably the biggest question heading into the season was whether the Badgers would be able to generate enough pressure on the quarterback without T.J. Watt or Vince Biegel, and UW has swatted away those concerns to this point.
— As an aside to the section above, Leon Jacobs had one of those days where he dominated on the field but not in the stat sheet.
The senior recorded two tackles and no sacks Saturday, but he had plenty of plays like the one below, where the pressure he created led to a positive play for a teammate.
He’s also the one who pressured Thorson before he threw the pick-six to Jamerson, and he had a crucial tackle for loss on third-and-1 following Jazz Peavy’s fumble to open the game. PFF ranked him as the fourth-best edge defender in the country this week.
— Northwestern really sold out against the run throughout Saturday’s game, and the Badgers were finally able to make the Wildcats pay in the third quarter.
Check out how congested the box is here on the first play of the second half.
The Badgers’ tight formation draws Northwestern in, of course, but the safeties are also sitting close at about eight or nine yards deep when UW still has two wide receivers on the field. Two plays later, when facing third-and-3, the Badgers line up the same way in what appears to be a likely running situation.
There’s now nine players who are within about three yards of the line of scrimmage, and the two safeties have crept even closer, to about seven yards deep.
Watch the safeties once the ball is snapped. They immediately move forward on the play-action while Cephus and Peavy run right past them.
Danny Davis’ touchdown on the next drive came from the same situation, and on the following possession, Zander Neuville appeared to be open down the field on a play-action out of 22 personnel (two tight ends, two backs) but Alex Hornibrook didn’t see him.
Northwestern made the play in the video above easier than it should have been, but these are the type of plays the Badgers must execute moving forward if other teams stack the box like the Wildcats did.
That 61-yard reception helped the Badgers’ offense get going after a slow start Saturday, but hitting those plays consistently can also make UW’s offense more difficult for future opponents to prepare for.
“I think that’s crucial to our offense,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said after the game. "Third-and-short, I think most teams think we’re going to run it, and if we can have successful play-action in those situations, it makes teams think twice about how many guys they want to put in the box. It gives them more to think about. So that was an encouraging play. It’s something we have to be able to put on film consistently so we can get easier boxes for the run."
Here are a couple more notes from re-watching Saturday’s game:
— With Troy Fumagalli out, the Badgers had zero plays with three tight ends on the field Saturday, although they used fullback Austin Ramesh in that role in certain situations. I thought Kyle Penniston did a decent job in an increased role as a run blocker, but he’ll need to continue improving in that area before possibly moving into a starting role next year.
— Center Tyler Biadasz has had a really solid redshirt freshman season, and I thought Saturday may have been his best game so far. He seemed to a do a nice job of moving defensive tackles out of the way and getting to the second level when needed.