Fee Fi Foe Film: Wisconsin Defense

Submitted by Seth on November 17th, 2017 at 11:23 AM

Author: still definitively not Ace. Previously: Wisconsin Offense

Two weeks ago:


One week ago:


Football is stupid. Wisconsin has kept every opponent but two under 300 yards: opener Utah State and Nebraska. Most recently they gave up 3/5ths as many yards to Iowa as Ohio State gave up points to that same Iowa one week earlier.

I watched the 33 yards game and mostly Iowa was doing it to themselves. I also watched the Maryland and Nebraska games. I think this defense is really, really good, but it’s hard to tell because all of their opponents so far are liable to fall down and go bonk. It’s a lot like watching a 1970s Bo or Woody defense chew through the Little Eight and extrapolating what they’d do against each others’ pass-averse offenses: Do they have any holes? I guess we’ll find out in the bowl game.

Personnel: My diagram [click to embiggen]:


BadgerGen Cloning Services has been doing work in the linebacker department, splicing Watt brothers genes with walk-ons to create the deepest three-assed pool of linebackers I’ve ever seen. Even with All-American Jack Cichy out, and Cichy’s backup Chris Orr out, there are stars all over the linebacking corps, including the guy who replaced Orr. WLB Ryan Connelly loves to shoot a gap when he sees one, and that tendency, though wild at times, is perfect for this defense where the linemen are taking doubles. MLB T.J. Edwards is every bit the coverage star PFF’s made him out to be, and perhaps underrated as a run-stuffer.

SOLB Garrett Dooley (6.5 sacks, 9.5 TFLs) is just as scary off the edge as Schobert ’15 or Biegel ’16 and perhaps better in coverage. The only LB I didn’t star was SOLB Leon Jacobs, the one they moved to fullback last year, and he’s got 8.5 TFLs (he can get squished by big OL I thought but he was close to a dangerman star too). Jacobs’s oft-used backup Andrew Van Ginkel has nearly as many sacks and TFLs as Dooley in half the snaps, but he’s more of a Uche pass-rush specialist.

Nobody on this front is less than solid. The secondary is ask-again-later since they haven’t faced any team yet, but it’s a potentially big deal whether questionable SS D’Cota Dixon can play this week.


Base Set? 3-4. They lift the nose tackle when they go nickel for a 2-4-5 look, as 3-4 defenses do:


[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Man or zone coverage? They’re a mix based in Cover 2, with zone blitzes showing Cover 3, though not always. I was asked on Twitter yesterday if they run a base Cover 3 and I responded most three-man front teams do some sort of odd coverage because they’re starting from an odd formation, and because covering the Cover 2’s seam/hook zone (red zone below) is hard to do when you’re trying to look like an edge rusher.


I was incorrect: Wisconsin can run a good ol’ safe Cover 2 because Garrett Dooley  (SAM #5 on the line of scrimmage at the top of the formation) can handle it:

I know they blew the coverage but that’s not a mature way to handle it, Nathan. Now you pick up that ball you dropped and…oh, your friend did it for you.

Wisconsin can turn any linebacker or safety into a plus pass rusher or plus cover guy (or in the case of Edwards, elite cover guy) on any play. This means they can disguise their coverages and bring heat from everywhere. If they screw one up—and that happens plenty—usually the quarterback is so already overwhelmed by all the blitzes and stunts and shifting that he won’t find the too-large zone cushion until death already be upon him:

no YOU stop using every vague excuse to post that again

Pressure: GERG or Greg? Dr. Blitz. I tracked their heat while doing the Maryland offense against them last week and the average first down attack was 4.49. Third down would look higher but they do sometimes leave just three.

As the platonic ideal of a college 3-4 Wisconsin’s three down linemen are not expected to bust through, though Iowa’s terrible OL managed to let them do so plenty. They’re built to disguise and threaten pressure from everywhere, with super-quick linebackers screaming in from anywhere and ruining your protections.

I know someone floated a rumor that a healthy Onwenu could push Ruiz to center this week—I don’t think you want a true freshman in charge of setting line calls for this one. They are coming from all over and they’re coming in quick:

…including from the secondary:

Iowa RB #20: oh he’s coming? imma just gonna walk away.



Of all the linebackers I was most impressed with MLB T.J. Edwards, whose zone prowess has been talked about around here since PFF named him the nation’s best coverage LB as a sophomore. There are places where I think PFF’s system fails them—a reader in the comments of yesterday’s offense post noted that I’d cyan’d the right tackle who’s also named Edwards when PFF a month ago had the same guy the #2 OT in the country. That’s a warning as much about my scouting as theirs.

On this Edwards, PFF and MGoBlog are allied against the draftniks who keep putting 10-15 other LBs in front of him. Get this guy into the first round, both for his run defense:

#53 the top middle linebacker

…and for the fact that his coverage is EA Sports game-breakingly good:

That from the overhead cam:


/throws controller

/ejects NCAA 2010 disc

/gives it to dog

I’m also a fan of the guy next to T.J., 3rd string WLB Ryan Connelly, another former walk-on (of course!) BadgerGen infused with Watt genes. Jason Galloway of Madison.com wrote a good breakdown of Connelly and Edwards this week that saw (and clipped) the same things I did. After all the hesitant dudes of the last few weeks Connelly’s quick reads and ability to get to the ball were just whoa:

I covered Garrett Dooley above and clipped a Van Ginkel play. It’s hard to find any front seven players I didn’t like, really. WLB Leon Jacobs can get sideline-to-sideline and covers well, and they can platoon him with Van Ginkel to make up for Jacobs’s comparatively pedestrian pass rush.

The defensive line is supposed to be space-eaters, and they’re very good at that. Iowa did manage to double-team all of them off the ball at times (see NT 99 and DE 57 on the play I clipped above) but that is by design: the DL will give some ground as long they can remain engaged with two blockers. That keeps the linebackers clean and able to read and shoot. This is how a 3-4 works, and it can be jarring if you’re used to 4-3 style gap-attacking defenses.

Ideally however those guys will stand up to the doubles or split them, and WDE Connor Sheehy is boss at that. He’s in the clip above too, #94 lined up just to the right of the nose tackle, in one of the rare instances he gets to be a one-gapper. He blasts past the guard trying to reach block, taking out that guy and bonking the fullback too for good measure.

At 6’2”/346 NT Olive Sagapolu seems like he, not Sheehy, would be the guy least likely to be moved downfield, but there were a few plays like the above where he didn’t get leverage and gave up space to make sure he wasn’t letting anyone into the linebacker level. He’ll also cave in a pocket if you leave him with only a puny center:

I gave your quarterback a chance, guy

Lastly SS D’Cota Dixon is a smallish, highly instinctive, highly athletic little dude who likes to stick his face into your run game or cause havoc on blitzes. When healthy Wisconsin really likes to make use of his ability as a fourth tiny spacebacker, but he’s good enough in coverage to do that and take a Cover 2 deep zone. His injury status could be a big deal because of the drop-off from him to the backups. In his stead they were using a combination of walk-on S Joe Ferguson and their regular nickelback Dontye Carrierre-Williams, who seemed to be the culprit on successful pass plays.

I wasn’t able to get a read on the cornerbacks given the jabroni quarterbacks Wisconsin has faced every week. It does appear that the new starter, Nelson, is better than the returning one, Tindal. I couldn’t tell which one Brian hates for wearing a hoodie because they’re never on screen.



This is the platonic ideal of a 3-4 defense. The only weaknesses I can possibly see in it that Michigan can use is the DL—including the moster nose—do give away. Last year’s SDE Chikwe Obasih is now the low man in a basically equal rotation with Alec James. Both are a bit undersized for this job, and Nebraska especially was able to exploit this for some chain-moving runs.

You can’t attack that too much because the middle linebackers will start to blast it, but that does open up some play-action opportunities to find receivers underneath the generally soft coverage. Wisconsin’s approach reminds me a lot of the canonical Bo defenses, where the linebackers were vicious hunters and the defensive backs were tasked with making sure any whiffs don’t result in more than a modest gain. Eventually they’ll get through and put you in a long situation, pull the nose, and destroy your protection scheme.

The way to attack that is be sound in your blitz pickups and chip away under the coverage with short passes and good routes. With a wet freshman quarterback and iffy pass protection going into a hostile environment, I don’t think Michigan is the team to do that to them. There should be some effective power running at times, and because of that I don’t think we’re in for the self-inflicted hamblasting that Iowa took. But this year’s young Michigan offense is not well equipped to deal with this yet.




why does the dog have a CD in his mouth?



November 17th, 2017 at 12:20 PM ^

if I can speculate what Brian's thinking, Higdon lately has been doing everything the offense needs him to do.  He's making the right decisions and such, so he's racking up UFR points.  But "dangerman" has always meant to me a player that the opponent needs to watch out for, someone the DC has to scheme to overplay, like how Butt was routinely double-covered last season.  Higdon -- while solid -- has pretty much done what you'd expect a starting Power 5 back to do with vastly improved blocking against bad defenses.  The UFRs showed his big plays were more Minnesota playing the run terribly.  I think this is what BiSB sees.

That said he's probably close.  He's been dodging/breaking tackles in the backfield, shocked us with his straight-line speed, and turned some nothing plays into chunk yardage.  Do that a few more times and I guess he earns his star, because DCs will have to pay closer attention to him.  But I think the reservation is, is this because he's that good, or Rutgers/Minny/Maryland is that bad?  How he does against Wisconsin will tell.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:51 PM ^

In my arguments I impose my understanding of the "dangerman" star, as stated above.  I imagine I'm the opposing coodinator looking at the roster and going, "Anyone here gonna give me a headache?"  Anyone I can play straight-up isn't a dangerman.

But that's me.  I get the feeling a lot of readers think of the star as a reward for doing well, essentially MGoBlog's helmet sticker.  There was some clamor to get Hudson one because he was the Designated Unblocked Guy and delivered, and there was resistance to Gary getting a shield because the constant double teams were dragging down his stats.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:00 PM ^

Cole's downfield blocking is a problem for opposing defenses. Michigan doesn't get to access that much but when something's been set up on the backside Harbaugh has been hitting it for a big play on the Cole side because he knows he's going to get supurb downfield blocking. Cole can mirror most linebackers in space, which is a rare, rare thing. His pass protection is good enough, not elite. Once in awhile there's a college player mistake.

He won't ever be a shield player. But I've been over this several times and I still find it useful to list Cole as a star. The stars on Michigan players are not for rewarding our players--they're for establishing a baseline of comparison for the opponents we are scouting. If I put a cyan circle around a center, he's worse than Kugler. If I leave a star off a left tackle, he's not on Mason Cole's level. I expect you've seen Michigan's players enough to have an idea of what they do over the course of a game and can extrapolate that information to the players I'm watching and trying to convey.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:35 PM ^

My view is that, yes, Cole does a good job and that is good reason to run to the left as they do. However, I believe there are at least two other reasons they (predominantly) run left-positive first: 1) Owenu and Ruiz do an excellent job of pulling/leading through the hole and then blocking at the second level-in space and 2) the negative, Bredeson is unable to duplicate the RGs' play going the other way. And this is why I would not be surprised if Ruiz replaced Bredeson...making Bredeson the substitute.


November 17th, 2017 at 11:50 AM ^

Only thing that somewhat settles me about this game is Wisconsin's QB's propensity for throwing INTs.  We might not have to cobble together 80 yard drives to get one or two TD's.


This could end up being a rock fight where we win by a score similar to last year, except instead of us outgaining them by 200 yards and missing 3 field goals, we just claw our way to a 13 or 14 points off of short fields.


November 17th, 2017 at 11:45 AM ^

1. This defense, based upon their schedule, seems ready to be exposed by a good offense.

2. Michigan is not the offense to expose them.

I get the willies looking at film posts anyway because they usually make the teams we play seem impenetrable. But, seriously, disguised coverages? Zone blitzes? LBs that can drop back and fool QBs? That's not a good thing for a QB that doesn't have all the reads down yet. This is going to be tough going. 


November 17th, 2017 at 12:01 PM ^

Kugler is a first-year starter so the line calls on run plays don't have me comfortable either.  MGoBlog (I think Brian) noted that our recent success with IZ was probably because Maryland didn't stunt much.  Also, our kicker is broken, so even if their QB gives us short fields we can't FG our way to a 12-10 win.

There is a chance.  Wisconsin's defense is untested, there should be a lot of frippery in the bag of tricks and even pick-sixes aren't out of the picture.  If we break tendency we could get some chunk plays.  But a lot has to go right and Harbaugh seems snakebit, especially on the road.


November 17th, 2017 at 2:10 PM ^

Iowa scored 51 points on an excellent OSU defense. Against Wisconsin, they were impotent.

We will be lucky to score 14 points. Wisconsin knows this so they will not let their QB lose the game. They will be conservative and let the Michigan offensive implode providing Wisconsin excellent field position. Those of you relying on our defense to win this game are being delusional.

It pains me to say this by Michigan on the road against home teams with a winning record generally lose. It is what it is. Don't let you heart overcome reality. In short, Michigan doesn't have a chance in this game, The margin of victory will be closer to 14 points.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:06 PM ^



As long as the score doesn't get out of hand in favor of Wiscy, and we have a chance to win in the 4th, and actually beating them I am happy.  A 9-2 record tomorrow is a far cry from where we saw ourselves a few weeks ago.


November 17th, 2017 at 11:59 AM ^

No offense, but I’m hopeful that your scouting is trash. Lol

They might be ticked off from last year, plus they are playing at Camp Randall

We are going in there with a freshman QB/a rusty Speight

*takes a sip from flask*

bring it on

N. Campus Tech

November 17th, 2017 at 1:17 PM ^

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye, and asks if you paid your dues; you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yes sir, the check is in the mail."


November 17th, 2017 at 12:12 PM ^

even this far into the season, due to their schedule. I think they are a very good team, but vulnerable, just not sure we can exploit them at all.  I expect our defense to keep things close, but we are not going to run our way to enough points to beat them.

Our offense has been improving, but not sure it's reached a point where I feel confident going into this game. I expect our offense upward trend to continue and a year from now I would be much more confident then I am today in a young offense.

I would expect a loss in the range of 21-13, with the touchdown coming from special teams or a pick six. Think our offense accounts for a couple of FG's as Nordin gets it figured out this week.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:13 PM ^

Interesting, isn't it, that everyone's favorite Manball team often has only three d-linemen out there and that two of them are not large?

Quite a bit like Michigan, really, but I get the sense that their fanbase, unlike much of ours, understands that it IS possible to defend the run that way.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:34 PM ^

Wisconsin's NT is a conventional 3-4 nose, a man-planet who eats blockers like Monstro.  Their linebackers are in the 225-250 range.  As Seth says, this is an old-school, archetype 3-4 defense.

Michigan's NT, at least when running the 3-3-5, is a 280-pound cannonball.  Their MLB is a bottle rocket and the 3-4 SAM analogue is a spacebacker.  Not that I expect Brown to use the 3-3-5 against Wisconsin except maybe on passing downs.  He's been slowly working Solomon and Mone into the rotation, likely just for this game, so we'll be playing a lot of 4-3.

But no, these D-lines are not similar at all, starting with the sixty (!!) pound difference at nose tackle.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:31 PM ^

The 3-3-5 and 3-4 are different animals. The 3-3-5 is more like a 4-2-5 nickel defense that simply replaces one defensive linemen for a surprise blitzer somewhere. That's why Michigan can go seamlessly between the two. These defenses will shut down most primo run gaps by having a blitzballs defender of some sort jack-knifing into it, and then the offense has to try to find and pry open a gap that a coverage linebacker is responsible for to run through.

Wisconsin's 3-4 is a real 3-4: the DL are told to dominate the guy they're lined up across so the LBs can read and clean up. The offense has to beat those guys first and foremost, and then win a one-on-one battle with the linebackers to get to the point of attack before the LB does or overpower the LB to create space.

The Maizer

November 17th, 2017 at 12:29 PM ^

I don't understand that Iowa vs. Wisconsin box score graphic. It says Iowa got 8 passing yards but also shows that QB Nathan Stanley got 41 pass yards. Similar disparity for Wisconsin. What's the deal? Some kind of adjustment on the yardage?

The only way those numbers make sense is if yards lost to sacks were applied to both passing and rushing.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:07 PM ^

Did they? In this game cfbstats shows:

  • 4 sacks for -37 yards
  • 26 rushes for 25 yards
  • 24 pass attempts for 41 yars

So yeah maybe you're correct--they subtracted it twice. Dammitall I finally found an MSM place that treats sacks as passing and they forgot that sacks were already charged against rushing.


November 17th, 2017 at 2:15 PM ^

I agree.  Iowa spent everything they had beating up on poor, helpless, OSU.  They went into UW with 'Letdown' smacked into their collective forehead.  Meanwhile, UW was primed to get a 'signature' win.  They will be primed again this weekend.  Gonna be tough sleddin' for Peters and his band of merrymen...


November 17th, 2017 at 12:48 PM ^

Because there is a difference between "pedestrian" and "bad."

Also, it is not showing in the numbers yet for various reasons, but DPJ is quietly turning into a good player. Safeties respect him as a deep threat, he shows great effort blocking on the edge, and he's starting to learn how to get open on the short/intermediate stuff.


November 17th, 2017 at 12:45 PM ^

Wisconsin is basically what Michigan wants to be. A team that can run against anyone, has a top 5 defense, and should have a QB that doesn't make mistakes and can hit an open WR. Now, Hornibrook isn't a perfect QB, which is why their offense isn't that scary. But their defense is 100% perfect, and it's going to take some perfect play calls and execution to score some TD's tomorrow. 

I'm not confident enough in our offense that we'll be able to find the cracks in this defense and score enough to win, but I'll gladly be proven wrong. 

My brain says we lose 23-10, my heart hopes we win 13-10.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:11 PM ^

This is the type of game why I love college football the most.  In no other sport does game plan and RPS have more of an impact than in college football.  We would exceed WIsconsin if we had better pass pro and a more mature QB, and even then we'd be facing the road game disadvantage, but even so, all of us are hoping beyond hope that Harbaugh and staff have been storing away numerous surprises for these last two games, much as Penn State unleashed upon us earlier this year in obvious revenge for last year's Sanduskying.

Could very well be JH has chalked this one up as a loss to save all arsenal for OSU and I'm not sure I'd blame him as that is the key game period, but will be fun to see if he, Drev and Pep did in fact save some goodies just for Wisconsin to tip that edge our way.


November 17th, 2017 at 2:21 PM ^

I don't think for a minute that Jim MF'in Harbaugh will chalk up anything to a loss until the, ahem, plus sized model is singing.  It's not in his makeup to come to the party unready to fight.  And if the fight stays close, he'll burn whatever goodies he has to win it - the next game be damned.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:27 PM ^

How the eff does Wisconsin get such great LBs out of mediocre generic 3-star recruits while we seem to suffer through much more highly touted 4-star guys with poor instincts, poor angles, poor coverage, and/or all of the above?  This irks me.  I want us to beat everyone on the field we out recruit damnit.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:50 PM ^

You got a problem with McCray, Bush, Hudson, and Furbush? Don Brown would like to hear all about it.

We've got good players. Other teams get good players too. Last year on the outside they had Watt's little brother and Biegel, who was a high 4-star. Dooley was a high 3-star who chose Wisconsin over Penn State. The real finds are Edwards, a guy Dave Aranda plucked from nowheresville Illinois, and the walk-ons Cichy and Connelly.

One thing Wisconsin can offer that Michigan doesn't is lots of linebacker spots. We're out there recruiting rush DEs while the Badgers just accumulate as many linebacker objects as they can and let the good ones come to the surface. Given there's hardly any rotation now since Orr's been out we might have finally seen the bottom of the current barrel.

But anyway they've had good coaching, especially with their last two DCs who immediately were offered $1M/year jobs and who are both good at turning up LB talent. Michigan does the same on DL--Mo Hust, Ryan Glasgow, Michael Dwumfour, Matt Godin, Chase Winovich, Kwity Paye...


November 19th, 2017 at 6:19 PM ^

I don't have a problem with them so much as I expect them to be better than Wiscy's.  McCray is probably our worst LB, yet the most highly ranked recruit.  Bush is great and Hudson is good and ascending.  Furbush is average.  But, I'm probably ust voicing frustration here.  Our front 7 is great the majority of the time.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:40 PM ^

This was the match up that concerned me before I read the preview.  No offense but I think your preveiws usually lean to being a bit more optimistic then they should.  This preview though wasn't very optimistic, which to me says a lot about how you feel this match up will go.


November 17th, 2017 at 1:55 PM ^

I thought I've been pretty on this year. I said Maryland D was soft but 6 YPC soft not big plays soft, and their Offense was terrible. Minnesota I made fun of Demry Croft for being not altogether there and the coaches not really coaching for this year and that was exact. Minnesota's defense I said the defensive backs are poor and give up big run plays and now that's canon. Rutgers's offense I overrated their left tackle and was perfect everywhere else. Rutgers defense I said Michigan could run power for days and they did.

I don't think any of those were overly positive: I think I correctly scouted teams that Michigan would handle easily and Michigan did.