Plunge right through that line

This blog needs to start with some music:

(I am curious about what year this was recorded. The fanfare sounds like one we played in 1984–85, which would mean I’m playing in this. We recorded an album — remember those? — at the Stock Pavilion that year.)

(If I was starting a new high school this would be my choice of fight song. It was written by John Philip Sousa. How many

Wisconsin plays Ohio State in the Big Ten football championship in Indianapolis Saturday night. The Badgers have played in more Big Ten championship games than any other team. Ponder that for a moment.

The storyline for this game, I predict, will be big Bucky against Ohio State’s superior speed and athleticism. But is that accurate? Adam Rittenberg suggests otherwise:

If the favored Buckeyes win, the script goes, it’ll be because they have more speed and more explosive players who were once much higher-rated recruits than the Badgers. Similar things were written after Wisconsin fell to Penn State in last year’s Big Ten title game.

But there’s a twist with this Wisconsin team. The Badgers are fast and furious. Their top-ranked defense has enough speed, especially at linebacker, to track down anyone, including the Buckeyes. Wisconsin’s offense also can make explosive plays, and not just Jonathan Taylor, who, fairly or unfairly, gets grouped with previous Badger backs who were celebrated more for their power than their speed. A young group of receivers recently emerged to stretch defenses and provide chunk plays to help a run-heavy offense.

Wisconsin has had speedy players before, but the collective trait stands out. Even Lou Holtz noticed when he stopped by a preseason practice, telling UW athletic director and former coach Barry Alvarez that the Badgers “can run with anybody.”

“You want to be as fast as you can,” coach Paul Chryst said, “and we’ve got some guys who can run.”

As the Badgers enter the final leg of the playoff race, they know they can keep up.

“When you think of Wisconsin, you think of tough running backs, power, things like that,” wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “But we’re trying to change that. We’re trying to show people we’re fast on the outside, too.”

Pryor, a redshirt freshman, forms an exciting young troika with sophomore A.J. Taylor and freshman Danny Davis. The three have accounted for seven of Wisconsin’s past eight pass plays stretching 20 yards or longer. Pryor also has touchdown runs of 32 yards against Michigan and 25 against Iowa. This big-play prowess has helped since top receiver Quintez Cephus suffered a season-ending leg injury in a Nov. 4 win against Indiana. At the time of his injury, Cephus had accounted for seven receptions of 20 yards or longer, the most on the team.

After Wisconsin’s Nov. 18 win over Michigan, Davis talked about his desire to “win with speed.” His first career catch went for 35 yards against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 9. His second went for 50 yards the next week at BYU. Although tight end Troy Fumagalli leads the team in receptions, Davis, Taylor and Pryor each average better than 14 yards per catch.

“I know they’re going to do everything they can to fight for the ball and make sure we get it,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook said, “and then after the catch, they do some things that are pretty special, too.”

Wisconsin’s defense is doing special things, too, ranking first or second nationally in points allowed, yards allowed, rush yards allowed and pass yards allowed. The Badgers have allowed 10 or fewer points in half their games and just five touchdowns in their past seven contests. Although Wisconsin has been a top defense the past three seasons, speed is taking this year’s group to the next level.

Need proof? Look at the linebackers, especially T.J. Edwards, who is tied for the team lead with four interceptions, and Ryan Connelly, Wisconsin’s top tackler. The two have combined for 21 tackles for loss. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard also loves the athleticism he has with linebackers Garret DooleyAndrew Van Ginkel and Leon Jacobs, who has hopscotched positions throughout his career but once tracked down Melvin Gordon on a long run in practice. Jacobs is thriving this season as a starting outside linebacker, recording 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

“All those guys can run,” Leonhard said. “They can chase plays down. It’s not just a power game. Get us out of the box, and you’ve got us right where you want us. We don’t feel that way with that group.”

No player reflects the new Wisconsin and the program’s developmental roots more than Connelly, a 228-pound outside linebacker. He played quarterback in high school and received no FBS interest, so he walked on at Wisconsin. After showing bursts last season, in which he started eight games, Connelly has become a blur of speed and aggression this fall, always around the ball.

“That guy is bouncing around the field 100 miles an hour,” Edwards said.

Connelly perfectly complements Edwards, a Butkus Award finalist who is bigger (244 pounds) and admittedly a bit slower but who also uses his speed to reach the action.

“He’s not afraid to throw his body around,” Leonhard said of Connelly. “He plays at a high rate of speed, so when he hits something, there’s usually pretty good contact. He trusts his athleticism, and he just plays fast.”

Badgers players and coaches are aware of how they’re viewed, how they’re included in the still popular belief that the Big Ten’s best can’t run with the best from other leagues. Fullback Austin Ramesh, who had a 41-yard gain on a jet sweep at Minnesota — yes, Wisconsin runs its fullbacks on jet sweeps — said Wisconsin “might not win the combine competition” against most of its opponents but added, “We’re not a slow team.”

Leonhard recently detailed how Wisconsin’s defense matches up athletically at all three levels, highlighting players such as end Alec James, free safety Natrell Jamerson, cornerback Derrick Tindal and linebackers Jacobs, Van Ginkel and Connelly. He then paused and added, “I don’t know if this conversation can really apply to the Big Ten. It doesn’t really fit the narrative of the big, slow Big Ten anymore.”

Leonhard played in a different Big Ten when he starred for Wisconsin at safety from 2002 to 2004. Only Purdue and Northwestern ran spread offenses then, so power mattered more than speed, and Wisconsin had plenty of it. Four Badgers defensive linemen were drafted in 2005.

“It’s more of a space game [now],” Leonhard said. “Everyone is trying to find athletic players at all positions, and we obviously put a premium on the physicality and how we want to play up front, but you need athletes who can run around the field and make plays.”

Connelly thinks speed can cover mistakes. Although the Badgers are strong tacklers and seemingly always in the right position, their pursuit en masse can stop the running back or receiver who breaks free.

“That’s what’s going to win you games,” Connelly said.

Wisconsin has won every game this season, recording the first 12-0 start in team history. But to get rid of the annoying labels once and for all — really, really good but not quite elite; solid and smart but athletically limited — the Badgers need to beat Ohio State and secure a College Football Playoff spot.

From time to time, Leonhard will show players video of top college and NFL defenses, the best statistically and athletically. He’ll tell the group, “This is what the best is doing. Can we do that? Is that how we play?”

On Saturday in Indianapolis, Wisconsin hopes to deliver the answer.

Readers might recall the 2003 Fiesta Bowl between Miami of Florida and Ohio State. The former had National Football League-level athletes. But OSU won 31–24 in double overtime because the Buckeyes’ defense made one last stop. That could be analogous to Saturday’s game, except that this year’s Buckeyes have the role of the 2002 Hurricanes and this year’s Badgers are the 2002–03 Buckeyes.

The Badgers are unbeaten largely because of their defense, with improvements stemming from the second-half disaster in last year’s Big Ten championship game, as Jesse Temple reports:

The opponent and circumstances surrounding the game are different. But the lessons the Badgers took from that second half still apply.

“It’s definitely a learning experience to know that even if we get in a situation where we’re down, we’re not completely out of the game,” [inside linebacker Ryan] Connelly said. “Also, if we get up big to know they’re not out of the game. Really, anything can happen. It just goes to show you’ve got to play every down like it’s your last down.”

Wisconsin’s defense has carried that approach into this season, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.

Wisconsin ranks No. 1 in total defense (236.9 yards per game), No. 1 in rushing defense (80.5), No. 2 in pass defense (156.4) and No. 2 in scoring defense (12 points). Wisconsin has allowed 15 touchdowns this season, the fewest of any FBS team. But the defense has been responsible for only 12 of those touchdowns.

Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said a big reason for that success stemmed from the number of returning players from last season, which has created confidence at all levels of the field. Two of the most important talking points Leonhard uses each week are to stop the run and not allow explosive plays in the passing game, and the Badgers have adhered to that strategy well.

Wisconsin is the only team in the nation to not surrender a run of 30 yards or longer this season. The longest run against the Badgers was a 28-yarder by Nebraska tailback Devine Ozigbo on Oct. 7. Wisconsin’s defense also has allowed just 32 plays of at least 20 yards. Among Power 5 conference teams, only Washington has given up fewer explosive plays with 31.

“For the most part, we’ve won our 1-on-1 battles this year,” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “Guys are challenging players on every play. I think that’s just guys playing with confidence. Confident in the game plan and confident in each other that if something does go wrong, there will be a guy right next to you to have your back. I think it’s very easy to let it loose and play free when you know someone is going to be there to help.”

Tindal said he has been impressed at what he’s seen from the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

“Every time I watch film, I’m amazed at what I see,” Tindal said. “Like, dang, all these guys really are down there working. I appreciate that from my standpoint and it makes me feel like, man, they’re down there working, I’ve got to handle my job, make sure their job is easier.

“We work in tandem. I’m just proud of everybody. What we’ve been able to accomplish, all the doubters, all the naysayers, ‘Oh, y’all losing this, y’all losing that.’ They say it every year, man. But Wisconsin always finds a way.”

Wisconsin’s defense was so good this season that 12 different players earned some form of all-Big Ten honors — even more impressive considering only 11 players can be on the field at one time.

But before members of the defense begin patting themselves on the back, they are aware that their most difficult challenges are still to come. That starts Saturday against an Ohio State team that ranks fourth in the FBS in total offense (529.8 yards per game) and fifth in scoring (43.8 points).

“There’s some weeks we know that we weren’t exactly challenged and we know there’s better opponents out there waiting for us,” Connelly said. “To know that we will face better opponents keeps us hungry not to completely accept the fact that we’re so amazing or anything.”

Wisconsin has spent the week studying Ohio State game film, which has provided another lesson on the importance of finishing games. Last season, Wisconsin led Ohio State 16-6 at halftime and clung to a 16-13 lead after three quarters. But Ohio State forced overtime and escaped with a 30-23 victory at Camp Randall Stadium. The previous matchup between the two teams resulted in Ohio State drubbing Wisconsin 59-0 in the 2014 Big Ten title game.

Given that a playoff berth is at stake, what happened in the Big Ten title game last season, and the team Wisconsin is playing, there will be no shortage of motivation for the Badgers defense to excel.

“I’m expecting them to come out and think they’re just going to beat us because they go to Ohio State,” Tindal said. “They just say they’re better than us. … They expect that they’re going to dominate us. We can’t let that happen.”

The faults of quarterback Alex Hornibrook aside (and there were hardly any faults in the Badgers’ Paul Bunyan Axe-winning game over Minnesota last week), Saturday’s game will be either won or lost by Wisconsin’s defense. Defense and running the ball are not just the staples of the Barry Alvarez era; they go back farther than that to when a seven-win season was a good season at Camp Randall.

The UW Athletic Department produces an online magazine, “Varsity,” which included interesting thoughts from athletic director Barry Alvarez that started with former men’s basketball coach Bo Ryan:

Every successful player or coach has done it their own way. That’s why I thought it was interesting to hear the different stories Sunday at the Hall of Fame basketball event in Kansas City.

Bo Ryan’s story is a reminder that there’s not one magical formula to winning, regardless of the level of competition or the sport.

Bo had certain things that he believed in — core principles that he taught and coached — and it was sound at every level: Platteville, Milwaukee and at our place.

Watching his teams play, you could see that his coaching was based on the fundamentals and he never got away from that. It’s pretty much how we run our football program.

Don’t try to create something you can’t do. Be true to who you are. Play to your strengths.

After Bo retired, Greg Gard has emphasized the same things. He took over a team that wasn’t playing very well and he turned them into a good team.

He never lost the kids. You saw them get better. That’s good coaching.

I can still remember going in and talking to Greg after a couple of tough losses that year. I told him, “You’re getting better. You’re getting closer. Trust yourself.” And you saw what happened.

Greg and Paul Chryst have taken comparable approaches. Unlike many coaches today, they truly care about the players. It’s not about their next job and it’s not about breaking the bank.

It’s about coaching and caring about those kids.

We never say goodbye …

… because Saturday isn’t UW’s last game. It may not even be the Badgers’ next-to-last game. Ponder that, because …


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