The first goal for the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense Saturday will be the same as it is each week — stop the run.
No. 18 UW has the best run defense in the FBS early in the season with just 33 yards allowed per game, and it has the second-best run defense over the past six years under coordinator Jim Leonhard. UW (108) trails only Alabama (106.2) in that metric during that span.
The second goal the defense has is talked about less often, but it’s another task the Badgers (1-1) have proven to be one of the best in the nation at accomplishing. It could swing the game at Soldier Field in Chicago if UW can do it against the No. 12 Irish (3-0).
UW is elite at taking away opponents’ passing opportunities over the middle of the field, an area that has become easier to exploit in today’s college game with faster offenses and big hits almost eliminated from the game.
“It’s obviously a huge emphasis in our defense and our scheme,” Leonhard said. “A lot of that in my mind is being aggressive. Playing on your terms and your speed, making a team speed up sometimes (so) they can’t get all the way through some of those progressions that take a little bit more time to develop.”
Pro Football Focus’ receiving direction tracking numbers show the Badgers have allowed 7 of 13 passing for 73 yards and no touchdowns between the numbers from 0-20 yards away from the line of scrimmage. That equates to a 38.3 NFL passer rating when opposing quarterbacks target that area of the field.
The Badgers try to take away the middle of the field in a number of ways. The first is by getting a quick pass rush, which UW has done a better job of this season with the improvements of outside linebackers Noah Burks and Nick Herbig. The defensive line under first-year position coach Ross Kolodziej also has been getting off blocks and creating quicker penetration.
Couple the steps forward from those groups with the aggressiveness Leonhard has shown in bringing an inside linebacker or a safety, and quarterbacks haven’t had much time to make decisions against UW.
“I think that’s where they’ve kind of let the dog off the leash a little bit there. I think that we’ve allowed for our D-line to get a lot more vertical penetration,” Burks said.
“Another area too is when we don’t have as much work and we feel routes developing behind us, making sure that linebackers underneath have their depth to be able to affect some routes by getting under them. And then ultimately everyone’s just got to be locked in their responsibility.”
Leonhard also mixes up how the front looks, showing pressure in some cases but having that player drop into coverage on the snap. Leonhard said his mindset is to “cloudy the vision” of a quarterback, particularly keeping bodies in his face and over the middle, where shorter routes are intended to be safety valves.
So many of today’s college football offenses are built around run-pass option concepts that take advantage of spread formations to stretch out a defense and open room in the middle of the field. Leonhard’s unit doesn’t take the bait.
“Teams do a really good job of creating space in the middle of the field, and we try to do our best to limit that and not let them clear you out with running backs or people to the flat, stuff like that,” Leonhard said. “So in everything we do, you’re trying to find ways to kind of condense that part of the field.”
UW forces teams to beat it to the edge — hoping that its linebackers and defensive backs beat blocks and make tackles — or increase the difficulty of opponents’ throws and catches deep down the field.
It’s not easy to do consistently, but UW has this season and for the most part under Leonhard. UW once again this week has to take away that space against a Notre Dame team loaded with playmakers — tight end Michael Mayer and running back Kyren Williams are especially dangerous over the middle.
“I think it comes down to just everyone understanding their role and their rules that come along with each play,” senior linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “Understanding your coverage, where your coverage is, because a lot of times, you could be lined up someplace but then your coverage is on the whole opposite side of the field in a way.”
Mayer has been Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan’s favorite target this season, with 17 catches for 206 yards and three scores. Eight of Mayer’s catches, 91 yards and one touchdown have come in the middle of the field between 0-20 yards, per PFF.
Senior safety Scott Nelson, who may often draw the assignment of covering Mayer, said wrapping up Mayer and not allowing him to gain yards after the catch is crucial this week.
“He’s really good once he gets the ball in his hands and he’s really elusive,” Nelson said. “He’s not a super fast guy, but he’s great at making short jukes and breaking tackles. It’s kind of deceiving when you watch it.”