Embrace the weird: How Wisconsin's stout D got even better by playing freer (and why Ohio State should be alarmed)
This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Growing up in Brookfield, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, Chikwe Obasih lived a few minutes drive from Joe Thomas, the Browns' All-Pro offensive tackle, who was a stalwart on Wisconsin's offensive line from 2003 through '06. Thomas's mother, Sally, was Obasih's school nurse at Hillside Elementary, and he eventually went to Brookfield Central, a high school known for churning out Badgers players. By his junior year Obasih, a defensive end, was the No. 1 recruit in the state in his class, and he looked like a lock to head to Madison.
But Obasih resisted. He didn't want to feel forced into the Wisconsin pipeline, so he considered Stanford, Vanderbilt and Illinois. Eventually, though, he signed with the Badgers. It just made too much sense—although logic has played almost no role in his football career since.
Now a junior on a unit that has not finished worse than No. 7 in total defense during his time in Madison, Obasih may not be the Badgers' best-known player, but he's the heart of their squad, embodying the ethos of the D: Embrace the weird.
Obasih is an outsized character, and one of the ways he expresses that is by assigning his teammates ... characters. Junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, Obasih says, is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a comedic role. "He's the type who's going to start playing Christmas music in October and come screaming down the hallway singing joyfully," he adds. "Action Schwarzenegger" is a designation reserved for Watt's injured position mate, mullet-wearing senior Vince Biegel. Junior inside linebacker Jack Cichy is a "little rabid bunny who has claws, and he tries to be really badass, but he's just adorable." Fellow inside linebacker T.J. Edwards is Uncle Tito from the early 2000s Nickelodeon show Rocket Power, Obasih says, comparing the '15 freshman All-America to a storytelling Hawaiian fry cook. And so he works his way through the entire starting defense, dropping references to everything from Batman & Robin to The Pink Panther.
Obasih doesn't comment on his own role, but he fancies himself the director of this slapstick comedy turned on-field horror film. Really, though, it's new coordinator Justin Wilcox who's orchestrating—and in many ways fostering—the madness. Going into Saturday's game against No. 2 Ohio State in Madison, this crazy and cohesive group will be the key to the eighth-ranked Badgers' attack on the Big Ten's most versatile and talented team.
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In the bowels of Camp Randall Stadium, a massive television mounted on a wall next to the Badger Alley Bistro is tuned to the Big Ten Network, which is rebroadcasting Wisconsin's showdown with Michigan at the Big House. It's the Wednesday after the game, and a group of elementary school children is there for a field trip. On the TV it's 7–0 Wolverines, and one of the boys looks up, tugs a friend's sleeve and asks if the Badgers are playing right now. "No," the friend says. "They played already. They lost. But not a lot of points."
Even the kid knows where to find a bright spot in a loss. The Badgers ended up falling 14–7, dropping them to 4–1, but "not a lot of points" has been their thing. Wisconsin, unranked in the preseason, came out of nowhere to beat No. 5 LSU—and former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda—in Week 1, allowing only 14 points, and since then the team has given up 10, 17, 6 and 14 to enter Saturday's game with the FBS's fourth-best scoring defense (12.2 points per game). The Badgers have held opponents to a Big Ten-leading 90.4 rushing yards per game (along with 291.4 total yards, better than all but 10 FBS teams), and their secondary, a potential weakness entering 2016, has surrendered only three passing touchdowns.
Their formula relies on a stout run defense that allows minimal gains on first down, which limits offenses' options on second down, then applying the heat on third, when Wisconsin has held opponents to just a 23.0% conversion rate. In Ohio State's power spread, which is averaging 53.2 points and 537.6 yards, the D will face its toughest test this season. Sophomore linebacker Chris Orr, who tore his ACL on Wisconsin's first defensive series of 2016, still travels with the team and watches film with Wilcox. The keys to stopping the Buckeyes, he says, are exactly the things the Badgers do well: Line up fast, play with tempo and dominate in the trenches. The pass rush will also be crucial, which means the Badgers will need linebackers Garret Dooley, a junior, and Zack Baun, a freshman, to continue to play at a high level. "People try to hype up football like it's a bigger game than it is," Orr says. "It's really simple: Play fast, play smart, play physical." Still, to come out with a win, Wisconsin's defense will have to be close to perfect—a reality that bothers not one of its players.
Cichy, whose wavy brown hair is shaved on the sides and long on top, looks more like a Mad Max character than a long-eared mammal, and he's exacting in his view of defense. "We see a lot of these games that are 50–48 or something," he says. "I couldn't play defense like that." Senior free safety Leo Musso agrees. This unit's mentality, he says, is that 14 points is 14 too many, regardless of the result. Says Wilcox, "You never condone in victory that which you wouldn't in defeat."
Aranda was the mad scientist behind that mentality. During his three years in Madison the Badgers were first in the country in yards allowed per game, surrendering just 289.4. Their scoring defense ranked second, passing defense second and rushing defense fourth. Wilcox, who arrived after two seasons at USC, inherited a group light on big-name recruits (among the starters there are just two four-star prospects and no five-stars) but long on both experience and that very Wisconsin brand of tough. In light of the team's success Wilcox knew major changes weren't in order. Instead, he took the 3–4 man defense Wisconsin has run for years and tweaked it, changing only the terms for play calls, not for reading offensive formations. He drilled down on fundamentals during spring ball to help forge a defense in which technique would become instinct, so that regardless of talent or athleticism, Wisconsin could line up and play with anyone.
By the time camp started, the new coordinator was able to set his players (relatively) free. "Once they understand the concepts of the defense and the techniques that they can use at their position, then they need to go play the game," Wilcox says. "I just don't want them to be robotic, and there's a fine line in there. Freedom is a bit of a relative term. But as long as you know where you fit within things, then yeah, play the game."
For the players Wilcox was a perfect fit. None disparage Aranda's approach—how could they?—but for a group whose core has played together for years, this freedom feels earned. "I think we're not so uptight," senior cornerback Sojurn Shelton says. "My previous years here, don't get me wrong, I played among some pretty good [defenses]. But this year, guys are coming out and being who they are." Quirks and all.
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The week before Wisconsin's Sept. 24 win over then No. 8 Michigan State 30–6, Biegel went to the barber to update his mullet. He often has designs shaved into the close-cropped sides of his head, but this time he decided to have them shaved completely, which left him looking an awful lot like Cichy. The two linebackers are already connected by position and by their reputation as the two loudest players on the defense, although Cichy says his screams are motivational while Biegel's are nonsense, yelling for yelling's sake.
The two aren't afraid to disagree, which they often do. But their jawing is restricted to the field, good-natured and often constructive. Cichy thinks it's a by-product of how much the pair cares, and the tendency to chatter among themselves spread to the whole unit once the players were comfortable enough around one another that no hard feelings would ensue. "You don't have to agree with the way I see things, but if you can understand it and respect it and you can add your input, I think that's really big," says Shelton. "And that's a really big key. If Jack sees something on the field, and I think it's different, we can definitely talk about it without it being a big situation."
The Badgers have also tried to channel more emotion into games this year. They've found they play better when they're tackling with abandon, when they care less about how things look and more about how they feel. Shelton says he doesn't mind if opposing players or fans think they look arrogant; that's not what celebrations mean to him. Screaming, hand motions, dances—they're all outgrowths of a good play and of the years of work he and his teammates have put into the game.
With so many characters, though, it's easy to wonder how the operation remains so cohesive. This summer, when the unit was running stairs, one player—guys decline to say who—decided to have some fun, cheering and laughing as he ran to get through the ordeal. It was how he coped. Another defender didn't like that reaction and voiced his displeasure. The two began to squabble, but Watt intervened, and the tension passed as quickly as it popped up. Such moments are inevitable but fleeting. "I will say this," adds Orr. "We like to keep smiles on each other's faces."
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Shelton has been a starter on teams that have won at least nine games in each of his first three years. But in the week leading up to Michigan, he says, he felt an energy he'd never experienced as a Badger. When Wisconsin entered halftime down 7–0, the locker room remained upbeat. Players resolved to let loose in the second half, to dance and thump and scream—which is exactly what they did as they tied the game in the third quarter.
Then, in the fourth, the Badgers were again down a touchdown, and the Big House roared. It should have been daunting, but Shelton fed off the chaos. When the game went to a TV timeout, he took the few free seconds to soak in the scene. "You look around you and say, This is what I came here for," Shelton says. "I came here to be down seven with six minutes left, and we have to get these guys off the field."
The defense held, but Wisconsin could not even the score. Still, that mind-set remains: These players came to Madison knowing they'd be underrated, knowing they'd rarely be favored against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State—and knowing the culture of Badgers football would make them believe no game was out of reach. Cichy, a former walk-on, turned down multiple lower-level offers for a chance to be part of the front seven. Musso picked Wisconsin even though the coaches wanted him to play a totally new position, because he'd grown up near Madison and sold Cokes at Camp Randall as a middle schooler, where he'd seen so many underdogs succeed before him—J.J. Watt, Joe Schobert, Jared Abbrederis—that he couldn't help but believe. "Playing on this defense definitely re-sparked my love for the game," Musso says.
Theirs is an identity built as much on what they have to prove as quirky personalities. To be a former zero-star recruit like Cichy is as laudable as it is to be a four-star like Obasih. To be talented is fine, but to walk that line between crazy and confident—well, that's the goal.
When Aranda left for LSU, his players wished their beloved coordinator well. The money was good in Baton Rouge, they say he told them. He also, Obasih recalls, said he wanted to try his defense on a group with more natural talent. And yet, in the opener, LSU still lost to the Badgers 16–14.
Ohio State will arrive with what's perceived to be more natural talent too. As Obasih recalls the phrase, his voice drops. "Whatever," he says. His eyes narrow, and for the first time he turns serious. "It's whatever."