In its 24-13 victory at Ohio State last Saturday, Wisconsin put on the type of dominating defensive performance that has become commonplace for the Badgers this fall. The Buckeyes had just 224 yards of offense, and their lone touchdown came on a first-quarter punt return. Wisconsin has held all six of its opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards and has prevented four of them from scoring an offensive touchdown. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring and total defense, allowing 6.5 points and 198.3 yards per game. "Since I've been here, we've had the talent," says senior free safety Jim Leonhard. "Whether it's because of injury or intensity, we just never put it together for an extended period."
That has changed this year, for two reasons: the presence of new defensive coordinator Bret Bielema and the return of senior defensive end Erasmus James, who missed last season with a dislocated hip but now leads the Big Ten with six sacks. Bielema, a demonstrative motivator, came to Wisconsin from Kansas State, where he was the co-coordinator last year of a unit that was sixth in the nation in total defense. His scheme disguises blitzes and coverages by keeping formations and shifts to a minimum. "Once there's confusion, people play slower," he says. "We want to show the same thing every time, but [other teams] won't know what we'll do out of it."
Opponents haven't known what to do with the 6'4", 263-pound James. Aptly nicknamed the Eraser, he exhibits the kind of abandon that makes quarterbacks nervous. In a 16-3 win over Penn State on Sept. 25, James knocked Nittany Lions quarterbacks Zack Mills and Michael Robinson out of the game. "Erasmus plays every snap as though it's his last," says Bielema. James anchors a powerful line made up of four seniors, including All-Big Ten tackle Anttaj Hawthorne. That group is the primary reason Wisconsin dumped Buckeyes quarterback Justin Zwick five times on Saturday and leads the conference with 20 sacks.
"You can see on film that we're getting to the quarterback with four guys," says Leonhard. "When guys are that dominant, you can do a lot more in back, like drop seven into coverage. It's huge."