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Wisconsin Football & its Defensive Conundrum: A Program in Transition

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Wisconsin Badgers defensive coordinator Mike Tressel
Wisconsin Badgers defensive Coordinator Mike Tressel runs through a drill during fall training camp at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023.

For the Wisconsin football team, outside of its power running game, suffocating defensive schemes have been the heartbeat of the Badgers identity as a program over the last decade. But, this season’s defensive transition has been a seismic shift as they navigate the challenging terrain between meshing the well-established 3-4 scheme run by former defensive coordinators Dave Aranda, Justin Wilcox, and Jim Leonhard — and the 3-3-5 system brought in by Mike Tressel.

Leonhard, a defensive wizard and a beloved figure in Wisconsin football history, produced four units that finished top five in total defense & top 10 in scoring dense during his tenure.

His departure left massive shoes to fill, and many wondered how the team would adapt without him leading the charge.

Wisconsin Football is Enduring Some Growing Pains on Defense 

Enter Mike Tressel, a seasoned defensive coordinator with a successful track record, most notably during his tenure at Cincinnati. Tressel brings with him a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, a system that leans heavily on defensive backs, versatility, and adaptability. This transition is more than just a change in X’s and O’s; it’s a philosophical shift.

The challenge facing Wisconsin Football lies in the personnel.

Recruiting and building a roster to excel in a 3-4 scheme is vastly different from assembling a unit geared for a 3-3-5 approach. The 3-4 relies on stout defensive linemen and inside linebackers who can take on blocks and stuff the run. In contrast, the 3-3-5 leans on speedy, agile linebackers and a surplus of defensive backs to handle passing situations effectively.

The result? A team caught between two worlds.

After three games of non-conference play, Wisconsin football is No. 80 in the country in total defense, No. 54 in scoring defense, and allows 5.04 yards per play. UW is also No. 10 among Big Ten programs in defensive havoc, which takes TFLs, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by the total number of plays — underscoring a few concerning trends.

On the flip side, UW’s pass rush has generated 22.6 pressures a game — despite not having a stud pass rusher for the first time in quite a while, which tells me that Coach Tressel has done a better job scheming up pressure than I initially thought.

Players who thrived in the 3-4 scheme are now tasked with adapting to new roles in this hybrid system. It’s akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole. The growing pains have been evident for Wisconsin football, given the lackluster defensive performances we’ve seen so far.

In their transition year under Luke Fickell & Mike Tressel, the Badgers defense has appeared uncharacteristically vulnerable, giving up yards and chunk plays in ways that fans are unaccustomed to witnessing.

Final Thoughts 

It’s worthwhile to acknowledge that living up to the incredibly high standards for Wisconsin football on defense is no easy task. But the standard is the standard at UW, and it’s Mike Tressel’s job to make it work. 

Coach Tressel brings his own set of credentials, including a successful stint at Cincinnati, where his defensive units ranked No. 2 nationally in passing yards, No. 3 in passer rating, No. 11 in scoring defense, No. 13 in sacks, and No. 14 in total defense. So, it’s not entirely fair to judge him after only three games — but the early returns haven’t been encouraging. 

“We like to play a little bit more on-body coverage because, yes, you might give up some plays, but the idea is you’re going to make them challenge everything and hopefully give your offense some more opportunities because they don’t have as many of those drives and hold the ball as long,” Fickell said. “There’s some things we know we’ve got to do a better job of. But we’re going to play a lot of man coverage. We’re going to play on bodies.”

While the transition has presented early challenges, it’s essential to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Badgers are in the process of recalibrating their defense to suit the new scheme and personnel. 

Wisconsin Football is at a crossroads, navigating the uncharted territory between two defensive philosophies. 

The journey may be bumpy, but it’s not without promise — despite the uneven performance against Georgia Southern — we saw what a bend-don’t-break style that creates turnovers can look like. As the season unfolds, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the Wisconsin football defense as they strive to find their identity in the 3-3-5 scheme under the guidance of Mike Tressel.

All we can do as Wisconsin Badgers fans is trust the process.



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Dillon Graff is a Substack Newsletter Best Selling Author and the Owner of BadgerNotes.com, your go-to source for in-depth coverage of the Wisconsin Badgers. His work has been featured in top media publications like USA Today, Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, B5Q, Saturday Blitz, and Fansided.

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