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Tom Oates: Utah State game five years ago was turning point for UW defense

September 1, 2017 GMT

Five years ago, Utah State’s football team threw a mighty scare into the University of Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.

Because the Badgers escaped with a 16-14 win over the Aggies, however, the game eventually was lost to history, becoming just another victory over a bought-and-paid-for opponent from an obscure conference.

Turns out nothing could be further from truth. That game started a chain reaction of events that has fundamentally altered the way UW plays football.

The change began when UW coach Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas the day after the 2012 Big Ten Conference championship game. Athletic director Barry Alvarez, after whiffing on a couple of candidates from his short list, recalled how well Utah State had played that day and hired Aggies coach Gary Andersen as Bielema’s replacement.

Andersen then hired Dave Aranda as his defensive coordinator and together they changed UW’s defense from its traditional 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 setup. Andersen also worked to inject more speed into a defense that historically had been more physical than fast.

Even though Andersen ultimately proved to be a bad fit for UW and departed for Oregon State after only two seasons, he left behind a defensive legacy that has lasted to this day. In an era where wide-open offenses have taken over the game, UW’s fast and unpredictable yet still-physical defense has become one of the nation’s most dominant units. With Aranda in charge for three seasons and Justin Wilcox last season, UW allowed 16.6 points per game, which trailed only Alabama among FBS teams over those four years.

“I think adapting the 3-4 here at Wisconsin was huge and (it came) at the right time,” first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I think it happened at the right time to be able to handle some of that (spread) stuff. Guys are comfortable with adjustments. We have smart players. We recruit smart players. I think you’re doing them a disservice if you have a defense that’s really simple. They can handle those adjustments and they love football, so they’re willing to work at it. It’s helped us here.”

Actually, the rise of the defense is potentially transformative for UW, which has seldom been dominant on both sides of the ball at the same time. If Leonhard can keep the defense at an elite level and coach Paul Chryst can orchestrate a breakthrough season for an offense that has slipped the past five seasons — both of which are possible for a team ranked ninth in the preseason poll — the Badgers could be chasing a Big Ten and perhaps even a national title.

There are questions at quarterback, where sophomore Alex Hornibrook must take a step up, and outside linebacker, where Garret Dooley, Leon Jacobs and Andrew Van Ginkel must replace dynamic pass rushers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, but UW has talent, depth and experience at most other spots going into tonight’s opener against Utah State at Camp Randall.

“I have big expectations for us and I know the team does as well,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “I’m expecting a national championship. I’m sure everybody in the nation is expecting a national championship, but I really feel like this team this year has a great chance to be national champions.”

For starters, the defense must maintain its performance level. UW allowed 15.6 points per game to rank fourth nationally last season and also posted top-10 rankings in total defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.

To be fair, UW had become a top-20 defense under co-coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge in 2011 and ’12. Since then, however, its average ranks have been seventh in scoring defense and fifth in total defense. With a talented, stable and often-overlooked group of linemen, an endless supply of active linebackers and surprising speed in the secondary, UW has created a culture on defense that carries over from year to year.

“They’ve bought into it,” Leonhard said. “The scheme, whether it was Dave or Justin or myself, it’s sound. It’s getting guys to understand the nuances of it and why we do the things that we do and how we want them to execute it.”

The second part of the formula is getting UW’s offense back to where it was during Chryst’s final two seasons as offensive coordinator before he left to become the head coach at Pitt. In 2010 and ’11, UW averaged 42.9 points per game, which was third among power-five conference teams behind only Oregon and Oklahoma State.

UW is just now digging out of the hole created because Andersen was recruiting to a different offensive system, with the line finally gaining experience and depth to go with potentially dangerous weapons at tailback, wide receiver and tight end. If UW improves on the 28.4 points per game it put up last year, it might become well-rounded enough to beat any team in the country.

“I think the strength of this team this year could be the balance of it all,” offensive tackle Michael Deiter said. “We have depth at running back, a little more depth at O-line, good receivers. The offense has come around and the defense is still the defense. They’re still a great defense.”

The kind of defense that, with a little help, can carry a team to a special season.