Jim Leonhard wanted to change the look his University of Wisconsin defense gave opponents.
Knowing the struggles the Badgers defense had against spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks, like the one UW faced at Nebraska last week, Leonhard tried a new personnel package with his unit’s nickel defense. He mixed his traditional package of two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs, with a grouping of three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
That 3-3-5 defense — used on 21 of the 60 plays Nebraska ran — had mixed results. It allowed some big plays both on the ground and through the air, but it also yielded a turnover and some of the shortest runs of the day for the Cornhuskers.
“Just matchup-wise, just giving them a little bit different front with the coverage that we could run behind it. Definitely helped us at times,” Leonhard said of the package. “They do some unique things in the pass game off of their runs and we felt like we needed to get the fifth DB on the field and I think it helped us out in a lot of cases.”
The 3-3-5 unit — which took outside linebacker Noah Burks off the field and added a safety or a cornerback depending on Nebraska’s personnel — allowed 194 yards in its 21 snaps, an average of 9.2 yards per play. However, that total and average ballooned after a third-quarter drive when Nebraska went 75 yards on four plays against the unit. Before that series — the last snaps the grouping played — Nebraska managed 119 yards on 17 plays against the 3-3-5, or 7 yards per play.
Allowing 7 yards per play isn’t stellar, either, but Nebraska finished the game with an average of 8.3 yards per play, so it was a tick better than what the Badgers did overall.
UW linebacker Jack Sanborn picked off a pass after linebacker Chris Orr tipped it in the second quarter when the Badgers were in the 3-3-5. Sanborn said the grouping adds speed, and believes that package can be valuable for No. 14 UW in the final weeks of the season, starting with Saturday’s game vs. Purdue.
“It’s definitely still a work in progress to really understand, know exactly what you’re doing at all times. But I think as a defense we understand it pretty well, especially after just the little time we had prepping it,” Sanborn said.
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Keeping an extra defensive linemen on the field helped against the inside run while another defensive back gave Leonhard flexibility with his pass coverage. But the Cornhuskers’ rushing game attacked the edges more often than not, and the unit had some communication breakdowns.
One that stands out was the play that capped a quick scoring drive for Nebraska, a 23-yard pass from Adrian Martinez to JD Spielman. Safety Collin Wilder said there was miscommunication in coverage about where help would be coming from, and that allowed Spielman to be wide open in the end zone. Senior linebacker Zack Baun said that comes with the territory of working in a new personnel package.
“I think it was new guys in new position, new situations. Obviously when you do something like that, you’re kind of taking a risk of putting a guy in a position where he’s not really used to or not familiar or hasn’t practiced a whole lot,” Baun said.
Nebraska’s offense also had the advantage of a bye week to prepare for the Badgers, and its system of using no-huddle tempo and waiting for play calls at the line allowed Cornhuskers’ coach Scott Frost to pick plays to isolate the weaknesses of the look without UW being able to adjust.
“Their staff did a great job of holding their cadence and kind of, essentially, just reading our defense and changing their call,” Orr said. “So they pretty much were waiting for the perfect play for each defense that we ran.”
How Leonhard and the players adjust and improve in the 3-3-5 could be crucial for the final two games of the regular season and a potential appearance in the Big Ten title game. Purdue, next week’s opponent Minnesota, and the two teams with the best chance at winning the Big Ten East Division (Ohio State and Penn State) feature offenses that may require using the faster 3-3-5 look.
Regardless of the personnel package or the offensive scheme they’re facing, the Badgers again hurt themselves with missed tackles.
Two Dedrick Mills runs in particular — one that set Nebraska up at the UW 2-yard line and another down UW’s sideline that gained 43 yards — were allowed to continue because the Badgers missed tackles or were trying to push him out of bounds instead of tackling.
“There were some plays that looked like bad football. There’s no way around it, and it’s addressed with the guys. That can’t be the standard, that can’t be allowed, it can’t be OK, some of the effort on how we finished some plays,” Leonhard said.
“Unfortunately, there were too many snaps of that, and at this point of the year, we have to go practice, we’ve got to do whatever we can do to get guys ready, we’ve got to be fresh. We’ve got to get guys back physically the best we can, or rotate more and get guys on the field that are fresh and that are going to finish those plays.”