Wisconsin Football: Justin Wilcox has Badgers’ defense among nation’s best

Sep 10, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox watches his squad practice before the game with the Akron Zips at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin defeated Akron 54-10. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox watches his squad practice before the game with the Akron Zips at Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin defeated Akron 54-10. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports /

Wisconsin Badgers senior linebacker Vince Biegel once claimed he would take a bullet for former Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda; a relationship that was arguably the strongest bond on the team just over a year ago.

Coming over from Utah State with former head coach Gary Andersen, Aranda rejuvenated the Badgers defense, making them one of the most prominent defensive squads in the country. During his first season with the team, the Badgers ranked in the top 20 in all four major statistical categories: scoring defense (6th), total defense (7th), rushing defense (5th) and passing defense (17th). He racked up many accolades during his stint in Madison, helping Wisconsin achieve their first road shutout in 16 years in 2014 when they defeated Rutgers 37-0, as well as an Athlon Sports Coordinator of the Week honor.

The Badgers enjoyed a top five defense during Aranda’s three seasons with the team until, as expected, he departed to Baton Rouge to take the same position with the LSU Tigers.

Coming off an impressive defensive showing in their Holiday Bowl win over the USC  Trojans, the Badgers were facing a step in the wrong direction, losing the man that put them in the national spotlight time after time. Faced with a tall order in choosing his replacement, in late January Wisconsin went out and grabbed Justin Wilcox from the same USC team the Badgers beat a month earlier.

Wilcox spent two seasons with the Trojans, leading their defense to a top 50 ranking in scoring and 65th in yards per game.

Jumping right into the swing of things, Wilcox’s first task as Defensive Coordinator was preparing for the Badgers’ 2016-17 opener against Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette and the LSU team that took Aranda from the Badgers. On top of that, Wilcox also had priorities of not only getting to know the talent he was working with, but getting to know the players on a personal level and building a relationship with them.

“It is just what is best for your players, what fits the program and learning the personnel,” Wilcox said prior to the season. “Everybody is a little different. You don’t treat them all the same. You have to know what certain guys need.”

The Badgers ended up shocking the college football world in their opener, knocking off the fifth ranked Tigers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay by a score of 16-14. While LSU’s passing offense was never a real threat, the Badgers defense held their own against Fournette, containing him for most  of the game. The Tigers were held scoreless at halftime and scored seven of their 14 on a pick six from Tre’Davious White.

Despite a great defensive outing in Wilcox’s debut, the Badgers’ defense suffered a major setback losing linebacker Chris Orr for the season with a knee injury. Then, after back-to-back wins against lesser opponents, the Badgers made some noise in East Lansing, holding the then undefeated and top ten ranked Michigan State Spartans to just six points at home. But again, the win did come without strings attached, as it was announced later that week that the Badgers would be without Vince Biegel for several weeks.

Following the Biegel injury, the Badgers were looking at two top five opponents who averaged 45+ points per game on their schedule in Michigan and Ohio State, whom they knew they would be without their star linebacker against. Although the final results were not what Badgers fans hoped for, losing on the road in Ann Arbor to Michigan 14-7 and at home to the Buckeyes in overtime were nothing to hang their heads on. In fact, Michigan’s 14 points were by far its lowest point total of the season, with their second lowest total coming in their most recent game, a 41-8 win over Illinois. It was also Ohio State’s lowest point total of the season (30) before their loss to Penn State this weekend.

Through seven games, the Badgers currently sit ranked 11th in both major polls and 5-2 overall after a road victory at Iowa where they held the Hawkeyes to zero touchdowns in a 17-9 triumph. Despite having a freshman starting quarterback and an injury-plagued roster, a lot of the team’s success needs to be credited to Wilcox and company. The Wisconsin defense currently ranks fourth in the country in scoring and 12th in total defense.

It does not get easier for Wilcox and the defensive unit going forward. Fortunately for them, they were able to get Biegel back this week as he was able to accomplish one tackle in limited action in their win versus Iowa. Next up on the schedule is undefeated and seventh ranked Nebraska, who is third in the Big Ten in scoring (34.1 points per game) and total offense (447.4 yards per game).

So far, Wilcox and his plan of using multiple schemes has done nothing but wonders for the Badgers. Although the defense will not play a game at full strength this season, the toughness and persistence of these players will always keep the team in the game and in the running for a Big Ten Championship.