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For Michigan’s Foe, The Future Looks Bright

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The best kind of football will be played this weekend: with two teams still carving out their own story, each with lots to prove and enough talent to go all the way.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It was 2nd and goal. Twenty-nine seconds left in the first. Down 3-0 but knocking on the door, Hornibrook faked the handoff to Corey Clement, who would’ve had nowhere to go. Hornibrook pivots back to the end zone, and a little over a second later the ball is in the hands of tight end Eric Steffes in the back of the end zone. Touchdown. Michigan State wouldn’t have the lead again.

***

If you weren’t following the Badgers closely this off-season, you still probably knew they were trying to replace Dave Aranda, the defensive coordinator who cut his teeth under Gary Andersen - first at Utah State, then at Wisconsin, before finally moving on to his new challenge in the big, bad SEC.

Dave Aranda was tasked with directing an LSU defense that had started to lose its way without “The Chief,” John Chavis, and his patented Mustang 4-3 defense. There was no way bringing in Aranda couldn’t work; it was lauded as a slam-dunk, and LSU was crowned preseason playoff contenders. After all, Les Miles had stocked LSU with more blue-chips than Wisconsin could dream of, and Aranda was a maestro in Madison. Immediate success, right? And, an automatic win against the Badgers, right?

LSU D.C. Record Scoring Defense
2008 Doug Mallory/Bradley Dale Peveto 8-5 (3-5) 24.2 (57th)
2009 John Chavis 9-4 (5-3) 16.2 (11th)
2010 John Chavis 11-2 (6-2) 18.2 (11th)
2011 John Chavis 13-1 (8-0) 11.3 (2nd)
2012 John Chavis 10-3 (6-2) 17.5 (12th)
2013 John Chavis 10-3 (5-3) 22.0 (21st)
2014 John Chavis 8-5 (4-4) 17.5 (5th)
2015 John Chavis 9-3 (5-3) 22.4 (33rd)
2016 Dave Aranda 2-2 (1-1) 16.8 (22nd)

Well, not quite. Undersold in this narrative was the schematic changes at play - LSU’s roster was still heavily reliant on defensive backs and top-notch speed, and Dave Aranda’s defenses at Wisconsin relied on three down linemen and a swarm of bigger, two-way linebackers. Aranda would put numbers in the box, and blitz when teams passed the ball.

But when Wisconsin squared off against LSU, the ‘heavy’ underdog lined up and ran right into a stacked box full of defenders - defenders who didn’t have Aranda’s preferred size, and who weren’t used to stopping the ol’ three yards and a cloud of dust. In fact, that’s about what the Badgers averaged - 3.2, to be exact - and they kept possession for almost 37 minutes of game time despite constantly running into a defense that knew exactly what was coming and threw all kinds of numbers at the problem.

In the end, the Badgers couldn’t quite be stopped, and they proved that on a fourth-quarter drive that produced the game-winning field goal. It was the old tried and true recipe: don’t let them stop you, and then you win.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Still, the aftermath was stunned amazement and confusion. Wisconsin? Over LSU? Even many Wisconsin fans weren’t expecting that kind of debut.

“My main concern was around Dave Aranda,” Nick Heidke reflected. Heidke is a software engineer in Madison. “Our defense has typically been stingy, and the concern was that holes would emerge without Aranda's leadership.

“Wilcox had big shoes to fill with Aranda's departure, but the defense has been terrific in limiting opponent scoring, especially with only 6 points allowed to MSU (this past week).”

Aranda may have skipped town, but it turns out those big, fast linebackers were still residing in Madison, Wisconsin. Outside of Leonard Fournette (176 total yards), they shut LSU down - the team had 81 yards outside of Fournette.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Beating LSU proved to be the beginning of what has some of the makings of a Cinderella season. After sniping off the Tigers, the Badgers suffocated Akron the week after with 55 rushing attempts and 40:52 of game time on offense. Against Georgia State in Week 3, the Badgers ran 49 times and controlled the clock for 37:28.

That Georgia State game proved to be a much closer affair than many expected, with a redshirt freshman quarterback coming in during the second half to help spark the offense. A former three-star recruit, Alex Hornibrook followed up his performance in that game by taking the starting quarterback job in Week 4, against Michigan State on the road, and commandeering a 30-6 blowout when the running game wasn’t effective. Suddenly, the Badgers could now beat you in more ways than one.

But don’t expect Paul Chryst to show surprise at the way this season has gone so far - or feel satisfied. “As a team we did some good things, and gave us a chance to win, and there’s areas we can get better,” he said, shrugging off the kind of praise that always comes after an impressive win. “(Michigan’s) a good defense, and... Coach (Don) Brown is a really good football coach. A really good scheme.

“I think they’ve done a nice job - similar to ours with the transition - (it) looks to me like the players understand what they’re doing, have confidence, and I think they’ve got a really good group of players across the board.” He especially had praise for Jabrill Peppers, who “has got to be the best player in college football.”

“And so, good scheme with good players - that’s a good recipe. For us, it’s a challenge.”