Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports
The Badgers defensive coaching staff will spend the team's second bye week very much like the first.
Bye week focus
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - Three weeks ago the University of Wisconsin was heading into a bye week following a tough 31-24 loss at Ohio State. For defensive coordinator Dave Aranda the focus for the off-week was to determine what made the Badgers successful and what was happening when they weren’t successful. What he found was clear – Wisconsin had positive outcomes when they forced turnovers, limited third-down conversions and kept big plays to a minimum. In a 35-6 win over Northwestern the Badgers won nearly all three categories and it appeared they had found the solution to what ailed them in earlier games. But just a week later some of issues cropped up again, albeit in a 56-32 dismantling of Illinois – especially plays of 20 or more yards.
“It seems like right now we are two steps forward and one step back,” Aranda said following practice on Tuesday. “That’s got to end for us to get to where we want to go. It’s pretty clear for us to take the next step as a defense we need to eliminate the big plays in the passing game.”
The problem has not been a season-long issue, and overall, the defense ranks relatively high when it comes to stopping big plays. Against admittedly lesser competition, the Badgers didn’t allow a pass of 20 or more yards in games versus Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech or Purdue. The lone run of 20 yards or more this season came against the Boilermakers on a broken play that saw quarterback Rob Henry score a touchdown. In fact, of the 19 big plays they’ve given up this year, 16 have come in three games – Arizona State (7), Ohio State (4) and Illinois (5). Two of those were losses, while the game this past week was still in doubt when three of the Illini’s big plays happened.
“I take accountability for it,” Aranda said. “We’ve got to be able to get more pressure on the quarterback. When I look at the big plays, it’s a team issue. Whether it’s me calling the plays or the front people getting pressure on the QB’s or the back end people keeping things in front of them. All of those things we can improve on.”
So as Wisconsin heads into a rare second bye week, the focus on defense will once again be limiting big plays, especially right before the end of the first half. In each of the last three games the Badgers have been hit for big gains allowing for points to be scored.
A coverage breakdown allowed Ohio State’s Braxton Miller to find Philly Brown for a 40-yard touchdown with no time left on the clock. Two weeks later, Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian hit Rashad Lawrence for a 46-yard gain that set up a field goal late in the first half. And against Illinois, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase connected with Ryan Lankford for a 39-yard gain. Two plays later, the Illini went in for a touchdown with less than a minute left.
“I don't think it has anything to do with focus. I don't think it has anything to do with missed assignments,” UW coach Gary Andersen answered when asked why the long plays were happening right before the half. “It does have to do with an issue that we have, and it can't go without being talked about and addressed, because it's happened too many times.”
The problems, at least some of them, can be attributed to the young players in the secondary. Wisconsin is playing with a quarterback turned wide receiver turned safety in Tanner McEvoy. At corner they have a pair of freshmen – Sojourn Shelton and Jakarrie Washington -- a sophomore in Darius Hillary and a young junior in Peniel Jean. There have been growing pains, though against Illinois they appeared to be in position to make plays but didn’t finish.
“The coaches are working hard. The players are working hard on those young back end kids,” Andersen said after the Illinois game. “We need to focus on them now because we had some problems (on Saturday) on the back end. People are going to see it on film and they’re going to make us show we’ve gotten better.”
One way to help, as Aranda alluded to, is getting in the quarterbacks face and not allowing them time to look down field. Andersen believes a pass rush is a defensive backs best friend.
“The best pass defense in the whole world is a pass rush, and if we can continue to work on that and make it be more consistent, I think it will help in the back end,” Andersen said. “Those kids in the back end are going to get better.”
Wisconsin’s future opponents will offer different challenges but all will try to throw the ball down the field.
Iowa showed against Ohio State last week that they can hit big plays in the passing game, throwing for three scores including an 85-yard catch and run from Jake Duzey.
“(They are) very much like our offense,” Aranda said. “Run, run, run, (and then) throw it up.
“Or (Brigham Young), who I think has gained a lot more confidence in their offense and throwing the ball the last couple weeks. They’ve kind of caught a groove. Or Indiana. Which we’ve all seen can put up points and throw the ball all over the place.”
But for Aranda it isn’t about the opponent.
“The issues are not team specific. The issues are Wisconsin Badger specific,” he said. “Those are things we have to get fixed.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin