Dienhart: No. 10 Wisconsin defense continues to impress

Dienhart: No. 10 Wisconsin defense continues to impress

When the season began, most pundits looked at the first five games of Wisconsin’s Big Ten schedule and shuttered.

How would the Badgers survive a run of games that would see UW play at Michigan State, at Michigan, vs. Ohio State, at Iowa and vs. Nebraska? This, after opening the season with a win vs. LSU.

Well, so far, so good. Wisconsin is 2-2 in Big Ten play after an impressive 17-9 win at Iowa pushed the Badgers to 5-2 overall. And, you have to like the Badgers’ chances when the Cornhuskers come to Madison for the next game, given how Nebraska struggled vs. Purdue on Saturday.

“It was a battle in the trenches all game long,” said Badger linebacker T.J. Watt, who is part of one of the best linebacking corps in the nation that welcomed back Vince Biegel from injury today.

The play of Watt and the Wisconsin defense continues to impress and carry this program in 2016. On this day at Iowa, the Badgers hand-cuffed the Hawkeye offense, limiting Iowa to three field goals and just 236 yards.

Iowa’s longest run? It was 12 yards. Iowa’s longest pass? It was 21 yards.

While the Hawkeyes lack playmakers with wideout Matt VandeBerg and tight end George Kittle out injured, it was an impressive effort for Wisconsin in a series that has seen the road team win the last six.

“They persevered. They kept playing, and they did it together,” said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst.

“I thought they played really well. Guys did step up and made plays. We were tested and they stayed resilient. Same thing, whether it’s offense, defense, or special teams, it wasn’t perfect, but guys kept playing.”

When Badger defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left for the same post at LSU after 2015, some wondered about the impact. But Chryst hired Justin Wilcox after he wasn’t retained at USC, and the defense has been even better. UW is allowing just 14.3 points and 300.6 yards per game. The rush defense has been strong, as the Badgers are yielding just 102.9 yards per game. Wilcox’s defense also has been great on third downs, as foes are converting just 24.7 percent.

The offense continues to improve for the Badgers, who can’t run the ball like they have in the past but have an effective passing game that creates room for the backs. Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook is a work-in-progress who continues to make strides. The lefty hit 11-of-19 passes for 197 yards at Iowa. Bart Houston also got some playing time and was effective, completing 4-of-6 attempts for 59 yards with a TD. He offered a change of pace, as Houston poses more of a running threat on bootlegs and scrambles.

“For us to be the best team we can be, we’re going to need everyone,” Chryst said.

Add it up, and the Badger signal-callers hit a combined 15-of-25 passes for 256 yards. That created more than enough running room for stud back Corey Clement, who ran a career-high 35 times for 134 yards and a TD. He may be finding his groove, running for 164 yards last week in a 30-23 overtime home loss to Ohio State. He’s healthy and looking strong for a UW team that has won at Michigan State and lost at Michigan in Big Ten action.

“There were some plays that we left out there. That certainly didn’t help our cause,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The Hawkeyes have lost three home games in a row, falling to FCS North Dakota State, Northwestern and now Wisconsin. Iowa’s defense looks to be championship caliber. But the offense? A week after scoring 49 points at Purdue, the attack looked limited vs. Wisconsin, so much so any West Division title hopes the Hawkeyes may harbor appear to be dimming … quickly, as there still is a trip to Penn State along with home games vs. Michigan and Nebraska.

Can the Hawkeyes repeat as division champs? At this point, Wisconsin is looking good. And don’t count out Nebraska or surging Northwestern, which has won three in a row.

“We’ll look at everything certainly,” said Ferentz when asked about his team’s offense heading into a bye next week. “They made it tough for us to run the football today. We anticipated that. But our fits didn’t always look quite like what you want. We never really got into a rhythm there.

“We’ll look at it. But I don’t think that’s the entire answer. I think there’s some little things we’re going to have to do better.”

Iowa will enter an off week with a 5-3 overall mark and a 3-2 Big Ten record. And it will be a chance to heal up.

“It’s kind of on a couple levels,” said Ferentz. “The guys that have been playing a lot of snaps, we track those like everybody would. A fair amount of those guys are hurt. George Kittle today really gutted it up. First time he really did anything strenuous was Thursday this week during his off day. That was without us, but he was doing some things out there with the medical staff. He practiced yesterday.

“But Cole Croston as you might imagine is probably a little sore right now. Boone Myers wasn’t out there. We got to get those guys where they can come down the stretch for the last month. That’s one thing.”

While Iowa licks its wounds and wonders, what if? Wisconsin rolls on … and dreams big.

“We knew it was going to be more of a dog fight this week,” Watt said. “More of a battle in the trenches without their motions and certain things. (We) just try to be gritty, man.”

Mission accomplished. Bring on Nebraska.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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