Notre Dame showed flashes on defense in the first two games of the season, but in the 27-13 win over Purdue the Irish defense was outstanding. It will have to be every bit as good, if not better, when Notre Dame takes on Wisconsin this weekend.
The defense has to not only shut down the Wisconsin offense, it must also make sure it plays well enough to overcome the possibility that its own offense might not have a great deal. If both happen it will be a convincing win for the Irish, but if the Notre Dame offense stalls it will be up to the defense to carry the day.
There are five keys to making that happen.
1. Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt - Wisconsin has a big, physical offensive line and the scheme perfectly built for that type of blocker. The Badgers want to play bully ball, they want opponents to try and man up with them, and when that happens their combination of size (OL averages 312.2 pounds), scheme and strong coaching allows them to dominate.
Notre Dame doesn't have the size up front to play that game, which means defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and defensive line coach Mike Elston need to devise a plan to neutralize that size. The best way to do that is to attack. if Wisconsin's line is able to come off the line and get vertical movement the Badgers will have success running the ball. If they are forced to work laterally, or better yet, if they have to turn their hips in an attempt to stop the penetrating defensive line/linebackers that is a win for Notre Dame.
For Notre Dame to slow down the Wisconsin offense it must be disruptive up front. It must use its speed and quickness advantage to disrupt the Wisconsin run game.
2. Get the backs off track early - Key number one leads right into key number two. Being disruptive up front forces the Wisconsin backs to make cuts behind the line of scrimmage, and the further behind the lines the backs have to cut the better. What Wisconsin wants to do is get their backs on the run tracks and then get to the second level on a relatively straight path. Once they've cleared the first level you will then see them make moves to get free.
If Notre Dame's scheme and the play of the Irish front six/seven can force the backs to declare early, at least a couple of yards behind the line, it allows the rest of the defense to rally to the football.
It will also result in the Badgers getting more short gains (2 yards or less) and potentially more negative gains. Which leads me to key number three .....
3. Win on first down - Winning on first down is a must for Notre Dame. Winning on first down means keeping the gains to two yards or less, and major wins on first down are runs of zero or negative yards. This is a must for the Irish, and you could extend it to second down to a degree as well. Keep the Badgers to two yards per gain on first and second down (on average) and you get them in more pass heavy situations, which is where Notre Dame wants to play this game.
Should Notre Dame create negative on first and second down, something the defense has been quite good at this season, and the Irish have a chance to dominate this game. Wisconsin is not an offense that plays well when it gets off schedule, which means second and third-down and longs, or any situation that is a more pass heavy scenario.
Playing disciplined football is part of this, as the Badgers also like to screen on early downs. Those are even more opportunities to win on early downs.
4. Win on the edge - Notre Dame's ends have to play well against the Badgers. Wisconsin runs a lot of power and counter concepts that get pulling linemen on the edge against the Irish ends. That means Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola must be technique sound and physical against the run in these scenarios. If you catch or absorb those blocks its a win for the offense, as it extends the inside run lane. If you get sealed inside it opens up the bounce, if you get driven out it makes the holes huge.
The sweet spot for the ends is seeing the pullers, crashing them hard and engaging them with power and correct angles, which makes the vertical run lanes much smaller and can force more bounces when Wisconsin doesn't want to bounce.
When Wisconsin throws the ball, especially in early downs, Foskey needs to dominate the Wisconsin tackles. They are big and long but not overly athletic. If he plays with his hair on fire this is the kind of matchup that he could announce himself as one of the nation's ascending edge players. If he is passive or unsure of himself the Badgers will take advantage and run at him all day.
5. Perimeter coverage must be on point - This one is simple. If cornerbacks Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis can lock down the perimeter receivers it not only makes life harder on the Wisconsin pass game, it gives Freeman the confidence to use his safeties as additional weapons against the pass game. If they don't play well the Badgers will move the chains with the pass game and possibly rip off a big play or two.
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