For many, the last image of the Wisconsin defense last season was not a pretty picture.
The Badgers had 59 points dumped on them in the Big Ten Championship Game loss to the eventual national champion Ohio State Buckeyes, an embarrassing outcome — doubly embarrassing considering the Badgers were also shut out in that game — that might make it hard to believe that Wisconsin had a defense worth bragging about last season.
In fact, it was one of the best defenses in college football.
Even with that shellacking against Ohio State and the ensuing 31 points let up in an overtime Outback Bowl win over Auburn, Wisconsin finished last season as the fourth-best defense in America. Only Clemson, Penn State and Stanford were better when it came to limiting opponents’ yardage, with the Badgers holding foes to an average of 294.1 total offensive yards per game. That’s a crazy good number, as only five teams in the FBS held opponents under 300.
The Badgers were a little lower in scoring defense, the 17th-best mark in the country, but they still kept opponents under three touchdowns at 20.8 points per game. Take out the horrendous evening against Ohio State, and a 17.8 points-per-game average would’ve put the Badgers at No. 6 in the nation. In 12 regular-season games, Wisconsin allowed a scant 16.8 points per game.
The Badgers allowed just 168 passing yards per game, ranking fourth in America in that category, and 126.1 rushing yards per game, ranking 21st while playing in a Big Ten loaded with top-of-the-line running backs.
The mastermind behind this sensational defense was Dave Aranda, and despite an offseason coaching change, he stayed on as defensive coordinator. In fact, new head coach Paul Chryst made certain that happened.
“The very first person I talked to after getting the job was Dave Aranda,” Chryst said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “And I've known about Dave when I was working out on the West Coast and knew of the type of coach he was, type of person he was. Then, after talking to him and him understanding what I was looking for, me understanding him more, felt like it was a great fit if that's something he wanted to do. And Dave wanted to be at Wisconsin, wanted to stay at Wisconsin. … I feel really fortunate to have Dave as our defensive coordinator.”
So do plenty of Badgers supporters.
Aranda has a nice bunch of weapons to send out on every defensive snap, too. Wisconsin lost a couple of its top linebackers this offseason but returns one of the conference’s best in Vince Biegel, who led the team with 16.5 tackles for loss last season and ranked second with 7.5 sacks. The secondary is also experienced with Michael Caputo, Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton all back after making a combined 78 starts the past several seasons.
There’s plenty to be excited about on offense, what with Corey Clement getting a chance to be the No. 1 running back and Joel Stave feeling more confident at quarterback. But if Wisconsin is going to continue the be the dominant force in the Big Ten West and reach the Big Ten title game for the fourth time in five seasons, it will likely do it on the back of its defense.