MADISON, Wis. – The learning curve is getting easier at Wisconsin.
The 25th-ranked Badgers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) are hitting their collective stride after dominating Northwestern 35-6 over the weekend.
Coach Gary Andersen switched to a 3-4 scheme and installed new packages in his first year in Madison. It's been a learning process, but Wisconsin is rolling now. The Badgers never let up and finished strong in hammering the Wildcats.
"I sit back and always look at effort, and there were some extra effort plays that just jump out at you," coach Gary Andersen said Monday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Like linebacker Chris Borland's leaping sack on third down in the first quarter to hold the Wildcats to a field goal, effectively setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Or freshman linebacker Vince Biegel's tipped pass to thwart another third-down play.
The list of names could go on — and that's partly by design.
Borland is one of the mainstays. Otherwise, Andersen is mixing and matching.
"I think they're adjusting to the amount of packages. I think they understand there aren't 11 starters," Andersen said. "It's week by week, opponent by opponent, matchup by matchup."
Illinois is next on Saturday night. The depth chart may list 11 positions, but Wisconsin could have as many 15 players who could be classified as starters on defense based on playing time, senior defensive back Dezmen Southward said.
"Nothing has to be said," Southward answered when asked if had to console or encourage teammates about snaps. "This is a veteran-led team and they understand how this ship is steered.
"The players who the coaches think will be best in certain situations will be on the field, and when your number is called, you give 100 percent"
Though not necessarily at the same position as when the season started in the case of safety-turned-outside linebacker Michael Caputo. The team's second-leading tackler (27) behind Borland (56), Caputo gives Wisconsin more athleticism against spread teams.
That allows fellow outside linebackers Brendan Kelly and Ethan Armstrong to concentrate on pass rushing, Andersen said. Kelly, for instance, had some trouble in coverage in the 32-30 loss in Week 3 at Arizona State.
With Caputo playing more linebacker, former third-string quarterback Tanner McEvoy has transitioned to safety. He had four tackles after making his first career start.
For Southward, the comfort level keeps growing even with all the moving pieces.
"I don't think you see any miscommunication. I don't think you see any blown coverages," he said. "What you see is a bunch of guys contesting a bunch off balls. Even if plays are going to be made against us, they're going to be contested."
The offensive playbook is evolving too. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has sprinkled in wrinkles to build on the rock-solid nucleus of the physical offensive line, standout running back duo of Melvin Gordon and James White, and top receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Like the defense with the secondary, the offense has had its share of growing pains. Quarterback Joel Stave has shown gradual improvement through the year and an ability to hit Abbrederis on deep routes, though the redshirt sophomore remains inconsistent.
"It is Year 1. You've got to have a foundation in the base offense," Andersen said. "We've built on that every single week."
Kicking woes keep popping up. On Monday, Andersen stuck with his postgame announcement that Jack Russell had supplanted Kyle French as kicker after French missed from 38 last week. French is 5 for 8 on the season.
"It's definitely going to change how we look at things moving forward," Andersen said about the impact kicking concerns might have on play-calling.
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