Badgers prepare for Sun Devils' spread attack
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MADISON--Wisconsin fans surely haven’t forgotten the days when the Badgers would have struggled to slow spread attacks even if they had tried to sneak a 12th defender on the field.
“I think it has gotten better every year,” fifth-year senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said of UW’s ability to keep pace with spread offenses. “The more you see it the better you’re going to be.”
Armstrong and his defensive teammates face a spread attack for the second consecutive game when UW (2-0) plays at Arizona State (1-1) at 9:30 p.m. Saturday.
The Sun Devils, who can feature the pass or run out of their no-huddle scheme led by redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, should have one of the more productive offenses in the Pacific 12 this season.
They will be the first of several high-powered offenses UW will face this season.
“They are going to test us and hopefully we’ll respond the right way,” Armstrong said.
UW, which has not allowed a point in two games, appears equipped to at least slow efficient spread attacks whether the strength is the running game or the passing game.
Safety Dezmen Southward, a fifth-year senior, remembers that UW entered the 2012 Rose Bowl with solid defensive numbers but allowed 621 total yards—345 rushing and 276 passing—in a 45-38 loss to Oregon.
He was a freshman when UW’s defense was shredded to the tune of 364 passing yards in a 33-31 loss at Northwestern in the regular-season finale.
“We are way better now,” Southward said. “I couldn’t even put it into words.”
Coach Gary Andersen, a former defensive coordinator, has a long history of going against spread offenses.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has experience designing schemes against spread attacks from his days at Hawaii and Utah State.
“I would say we’re comfortable,” Andersen said. “It is different. The spread offense is really evolving to be two or three different offenses.
“It is not just the triple-option attack with a very athletic quarterback. It’s not just the four (receivers) and throw and the zone-read scheme.
“It is a combination of all of them. And I think where it is really going is a lot like what Arizona State has done.”
Although UW features three first-year starters in the secondary, including freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, the front seven is grizzled.
The front seven that started the Tennessee Tech game was comprised of all seniors, including five in their fifth year and one in his sixth.
“We’ve got a lot of vets,” fifth-year senior linebacker Chris Borland said.
Through two games under Aranda UW has used a wide variety of personnel groupings.
Against Tennessee Tech, UW often started a possession in its base defense. However, the Badgers used as many as six defensive backs and as few as one down lineman.
“We do have players we can put in certain situations,” Armstrong said. “Look at Brendan Kelly. He is a linebacker but he can play on the defensive line. He can drop. He can rush.
“We’ve got all types of those guys who can do everything. We’ve got safeties who can come down and play like a linebacker.”
Safeties such as Southward.
“Dez can drop down in the box and he is basically another linebacker,” Armstrong said. “And the next play he is back defending the post. So we’ve got the versatility and we’ve got the athletes who can do it.”
Andersen and his defensive staff have placed a premium on speed and so far UW’s defenders haven’t gotten lapped.
“I thought we tackled well,” Andersen said of the victory over Tennessee Tech. “We ate up the grass when we needed to and gave us an opportunity to swarm the football.”
Southward, who can also shift to cornerback and cover receivers in the slot if needed, made it clear UW will be stressed by Arizona State’s passing game.
Kelly started 0 for 2 in the Sun Devils’ opener but finished 23 of 31 for 300 yards and five touchdowns in a 55-0 victory over Sacramento State. He also rushed six times for 25 yards.
Nevertheless, Southward believes UW has the coaches and the personnel to slow the Sun Devils and other spread teams on the schedule.
“It took awhile for people to catch up and figure out how to defend that,” he said. “I think over the course of the past four years the guys that I have come in with—we’ve seen everything.
“We’ve seen triple option. We’ve seen spread teams. We’ve seen it all. So when you see all those things, you know what to look for. And when you know what to look for, you are way more prepared.
“And then I think you can look to the veteran leadership to make going up against spread teams easy.”