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Sizing Up The Opponent: Wisconsin's Defense vs Michigan's Offense

Sep 21, 2006 – 3:20 PM
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Bruce Ciskie

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So the Badgers are 3-0, right?

Really? They are? Never would have guessed, seeing as they are a two-touchdown underdog in their conference opener Saturday at Michigan.

Sounds like a few oddsmakers are finally buying into the idea that Michigan might just have a good football team. Hopefully, Wisconsin can make them look bad, but I'm not willing to bet on that, as you'll find out tomorrow.

Looking at the task the Badgers have on their hands Saturday, one can surmise that this is their toughest test. This Badger defensive group needs to find a way to slow down the likes of Henne, Hart, Breaston, and Manningham. Considering what this group did to Notre Dame's (bad) defense last weekend, it doesn't look like anything will come easy, though the talent is there for Wisconsin to at least make things very difficult on the Michigan skill players.

The first step for Wisconsin will be generating pressure from the front four. With Jake Long at left tackle and Rueben Riley at right tackle, the bookends are solid. But Michigan has shown some limited vulnerability up the middle. That's good for Wisconsin, because the middle of their defense is a strength. I would expect that the Badgers will have at least limited success using tackles Jason Chapman and Nick Hayden, along with middle linebacker Mark Zalewski, to attack QB Chad Henne and neutralize RB Mike Hart.

Expect starting ends Joe Monty (or Jamal Cooper) and Matthew Shaughnessy to have tough days. Both are quite a bit undersized (260, 206, and 234, respectively) against Michigan's big tackles (Long is 313, Riley 305). Michigan should be able to soften up the Badger defense with some off-tackle runs and force Bucky to make an adjustment to handle Hart.

The depth at linebacker may have taken a hit Tuesday when second-string middle linebacker Elijah Hodge was arrested. To protect Hodge's reputation as a rather manly individual, I won't reveal the charge (that, and he's innocent until proven guilty, even when it's something hokey like "stealing a moped" - oops). Hodge was more of a factor on special teams, but the Badgers are already not very deep at linebacker, so they'll feel his absence if the school decides he can't play.

(At this point, UW is only saying that they are aware of the incident. They haven't taken any action as of this writing.)

Hart's success may depend on the ability of outside linebackers DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas to be productive. Casillas has looked especially strong in Wisconsin's first three games, and while he can be a bit undisciplined at times, he is definitely the Badgers' best tackler outside of Zalewski and safety Joe Stellmacher.

Also tall is the task for starting cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu. The sophomore will be asked to put his reputation as an All-America talent on the line against stud receiver Mario Manningham. Manningham went for over 100 yards and three touchdowns in the beatdown of Notre Dame. He's not particularly big (at 6-0, he's actually listed as an inch shorter than Ikegwuonu), but he makes up for it with serious speed. Ikegwuonu will have to be physical with Manningham, but you can expect that he will, at least on occasion, surrender a short pass to Manningham if it means not letting him get free deep.

This almost reads like a "pick your poison" game for Wisconsin. Their opposition has been so stinkin' weak that it's impossible to get a good read on the level of talent this team has on defense. We know they're good, but are they good enough to get push with the front four? Can the ends use their speed to make Henne sweat a bit? Can Ikegwuonu (or possibly Allen Langford) cover Manningham better than anyone on Notre Dame did?

A lot of this starts with those tackles. Justin Ostrowski is out, hurting the depth. If the three-man rotation of Hayden, Chapman, and the undersized Mike Newkirk isn't effective, there will be much trouble on Saturday.

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