Wisconsin ‘D’ may prevent Ohio State’s CFB Playoff bid

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Wisconsin doesn’t have a single player in the top-100 nationally in tackles. Michael Caputo — a safety, no less — leads the team with 70 total tackles.

The Badgers’ six interceptions is tied for 99th nationally. The team’s turnover margin ranks 10th in the Big Ten. After forcing five turnovers against Nebraska on Saturday, it was still a whopping minus-three.

Yet, this is the defense that is the best in the land? It’s not only the best but so scary good they present Ohio State with a potentially serious roadblock in their bid for the College Football Playoff. If both teams win out, they’ll meet in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 6.

“We’ll see what we’re talking about [with] this defense in three weeks,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “But you got to look at them, know how well they play together and how well they communicate. They get on and off the field. But they’re very good in the work week.”

The real key? They don’t work much at all — at least not on game day.

Those stats are so miniscule in part because this Badgers defense is so good at getting off the field. That, partially, has even helped the Heisman effort of running back Melvin Gordon.

Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1 Big Ten) can commit to the ground game because its defense always keeps it in the game. The Badgers are rarely starting with big deficits. Wisconsin is allowing 15.3 points per game – third-fewest in the country.

Ask coaches around the Big Ten and they’ll tell you Wisconsin’s defense is an “11-man unit.” Meaning there is no single standout. There really isn’t one big time playmaker, either.

But collectively they swarm the ball as well as anyone in the country.

“Wherever the ball is started, we just like to play,” senior inside linebacker Derek Landisch said after Saturday’s 59-24 win over Nebraska.

“We’ve grown throughout the season. We have a lot of young guys on defense, but we’ve all grown up and we know how to respond in situations.”

Landisch spoke as if the youth might have once been considered a bad thing. Now, there’s no question it’s what should excite Badgers fans more than anything.

This defense is good for nothing this year — except maybe a Big Ten Championship. Which is something, but far from where the program wants to be. The Badgers expect to contend for the College Football Playoff.

But that went caput when Wisconsin lost at Northwestern — a game that was the fault of the offense, which committed four turnovers. So while the team is still focused on the remainder of the season, the program is looking forward.

Next season starts with a game against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. It’s a game that increasingly looks more winnable for this program with so many defensive starters expected back.

This week’s Wisconsin two-deep lists only four senior starters on defense and four players who are either freshmen or sophomores. All were contributors when the Badgers shut down Nebraska, the Big Ten’s most explosive offense.

“It was great overall team defense,” outside linebacker Joe Schobert said. “Everybody was making plays the whole time.”

Making plays isn’t something this defense is expected to do regularly. The five turnovers it forced against Nebraska were an aberration.

The Badgers are way more meat and potatoes.

Defensive lineman Warren Herring best summed up their defensive motto: “Just stay confident, keep the swagger and get the ball back into the hands of the offense.”

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

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