MADISON, Wis. (AP) When Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen and his staff had to replace seven starters on defense, there was concern the lack of experience would hinder the Badgers this season.
As the regular season winds down, it turns out that No. 25 Wisconsin is playing some of the best defense in the nation.
The Badgers, who shut out Rutgers 37-0 on the road Saturday, boast the No. 1 defense in yards allowed (253.8 yards per game) and rank No. 3 in scoring defense (14.1 points per game).
"It's kind of the unsung hero," Andersen said of the defense. "One guy makes a play this week and the next guy makes a play the next week. There are a lot of guys who are stepping up, and a lot of pieces to the puzzle. They've got a chance to be special."
Outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who has 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks, said the defense wants to show that it's exceeding expectations.
"We're still hungry, and still have that big chip on our shoulder that we had at the beginning of the season," Biegel said. "To go and post seven points last week and to have a shutout against Rutgers was huge for the defense, and huge for the confidence of this team."
Rutgers mustered 76 rushing yards on 29 carries, 63 passing yards and eight first downs against the Badgers (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten Conference), who travel for a second straight week, this time to West Lafayette, Indiana, to play Purdue (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday.
Andersen sensed Wisconsin had reached a turning point following its 52-7 victory against Maryland on Oct. 25. The Badgers held the Terps to 46 rushing yards and 175 total yards of offense, 227 below their average coming into the game. One player UW's coach has been impressed with of late, and singled out on Monday, is cornerback Darius Hillary, who Andersen said has excelled in man and zone schemes and is a "physical tackler" with a strong work ethic.
A mix of youth and talent, along with rotating players in on substitution packages, has made an impact. Wisconsin's defense has allowed 68 plays of 10-plus yards this season, the fewest of any Football Bowl Series team.
In his second season leading the program, Andersen said players have become accustomed to the 3-4 system and its terminology implemented by defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
"It's so important that they speak the same language, and then you can get 11 guys on the same page," Andersen said. "It doesn't have to necessarily be 11 NFL players at this level to be a very good defense, but it does have to be 11 good football players, or however many players are running through."
Veteran leadership has been critical on defense with big plays and performances from senior inside linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter, strong safety Michael Caputo and cornerback Darius Hillary.
Having senior nose guard Warren Herring back on the field also has made a difference. Herring, who had surgery to repair the medial collateral ligament in his right knee after sustaining an injury against LSU two months ago, played against Maryland and Rutgers.
Caputo, a redshirt junior who leads the team with 57 tackles and 3 1/2 tackles-for-loss, said UW's defense is a hard-working group that doesn't analyze the stats sheet.
"We look at: Get the job done, execute and prepare during the week, win the game," said Caputo, who also has one interception and one fumble. "Those are the things we focus on.
"Everyone wants to be a playmaker," he added. "Everyone strives to make plays but the good thing about it is, we do everything within our job, within the scheme, and that allows us to make plays."