We have here part three of our four part Rose Bowl Q/A with Adam Hoge at our Wisconsin affiliate over at Bucky's 5th Quarter. As always, you can view my answers to his questions over there.
When I watch the Wisconsin defense, the first thought that comes to mind is "these guys are so slow, its going to be like playing Stanford again." I see the edges being open regularly, and long runs if Oregon can reach the second level. Tell me why I’m wrong.
I’m not sure you are wrong. Overall, Wisconsin has been pretty good against the run this season. It’s rushing ranking (46th) is a little deflated by a couple of bad performances, when for the most part, it was pretty good. The problem is that one of those bad performances came against Ohio State whose combination of Braxton Miller and Dan Herron is the most similar duo to Darron Thomas and LaMichael James that I can find on Wisconsin’s schedule. Now, it’s important to note that the Badgers were completely deflated in that game because of their Hail Mary loss to Michigan State the week before, so I’m not sure it’s the best barometer, but it’s also safe to say that Thomas and James are a better duo. Plus, Oregon’s offensive scheme is tougher to figure out as well. The key will be Wisconsin’s linebackers. I think you are right about getting the second level, especially on the edge (it’s tough to run up the middle on Wisconsin), so the linebackers are going to have to make sure they make the tackle. It’s going to be a bend-but-don’t-break kind of day for the Badgers. They’ll give up a lot of four or five yard runs. The key is not to give up the home runs.
Of all the teams that have slowed down Oregon in the Chip Kelly era (eg Auburn, Ohio State, LSU), the common denominator has been defensive lines that are big, fast, and physical, and can both control the line of scrimmage and chase down running backs. How does Wisconsin’s D-Line stack up in this regard?
Wisconsin’s tackles are big enough and the rotation at that position is very deep, which is why it’s hard to run up the middle on the Badgers. The ends, however, while big enough, aren’t particularly the fastest group. The Badgers lost defensive end David Gilbert earlier in the season and he was Wisconsin’s fastest at the position. He may have been able to return by now, but they elected to give him a medical redshirt and save him. I think he’s the kind of guy Wisconsin could have used in this game, not necessarily for his passing rushing skills, but his ability to contain and chase on the edge. In fact, the Badgers’ pass rush has been pretty weak this season so I expect them to kind of sit back and play the run more and rely on the secondary to play well when Thomas throws. This is an area that is very concerning going into this game.
What is the overall scheme of the Wisconsin defense? Do they blitz a lot, or play it more straight up?
The Badgers run your basic 4-3 scheme. Sometimes on third down passing situations they will go with a 3-3-5, but they play nickel as well. New co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge talked about being more aggressive this season, but that really hasn’t happened. I think it’s a result of the lack of pressure provided by the front-four. They won’t blitz very often, but you’ll see a handful throughout the game.
Oregon is not nearly as fast paced offensively as they were last year, but they still move quickly, and depth is a must if you don’t want to get blown away in the second half. How deep is the Badger D, especially on the line?
Wisconsin is actually pretty deep on the defensive line. In the Big Ten Championship Game, the Badgers were essentially doing hockey-style line changes in the second half as they have at least two serviceable players all four spots on the line. All four of the tackles you’ll see can start and they’ll probably use five if they need to against Oregon. As for the ends, there are six guys who can rotate in there, but overall they probably aren’t as talented as the tackles. Depth is probably a bigger problem for the linebackers and especially the secondary, although linebacker Ethan Armstrong might return from injury and that would help. The secondary has endured some injuries this year and lost a starting cornerback so endurance could be an issue for them.
Give me the names of a couple of key defensive players that Duck fans need to watch out for.
Linebackers Chris Borland and Mike Taylor are the most talented players on the defense and probably the key players in this game for the Badgers if they want to win. Taylor is a tackling machine who is great against the run, but Borland is a play-maker who has a knack for forcing fumbles. He’s the guy Wisconsin loves to blitz when they do blitz. Both are going to have to play really well. I consider them the gate-keepers in this matchup. They can’t let James and Co. get past them. Prevent the big plays. Also watch out for safety Shelton Johnson, who has an interception in each of his last three games.
BONUS: I’ve heard from multiple people about Wisconsin’s struggles on special teams. Please elaborate.
Yeah, special teams is a problem. Wisconsin’s kick coverage is poor at best. In Wisconsin’s two losses, the Hail Marys get all the attention, but it was the kick coverage unit that gave up big returns to set both of those plays up. And it’s been like that for most of the season. They don't really give up touchdowns – just one return touchdown this season – but they give up a lot of yards, giving opponents a short field to work with. Also, they gave up two punt blocks, one in each loss, but those were both on one guy. He got benched and it hasn’t really been an issue since. There are some positives though. In the last two games, they kick coverage unit has forced some fumbles, so watch out for that. Also, as bad as the kick coverage has been, Wisconsin’s return game has been pretty good, especially on punts. Jared Abbrederis is third in the nation, averaging 16.06 yards per return.