As they watched game tape over their bye week, defensive players on the University of Wisconsin football team saw the same issue crop up time and again.
Missed tackles led to big plays for opponents during the back-to-back losses that have the Badgers in must-win mode for the remainder of the regular season. UW’s defense, still statistically one of the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision, wasn’t rallying to the ball and getting multiple players involved on tackles.
Early in the season, even when it was a one-on-one tackle situation, the No. 16 Badgers were able to get opponents to the ground. But the inability to do so proved costly against Illinois and Ohio State.
“I just feel like we’ve got to get back to how we were before, everybody swarming to the ball. Shooting your shot, trusting that everybody else is going to swarm,” sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose said.
Despite controlling the game most of the way defensively at Illinois on Oct. 19, missed tackles led to two touchdowns, which allowed the Illini to hang around before pulling off a 24-23 upset.
On Donny Navarro’s 48-yard touchdown reception, Wildgoose and safety Eric Burrell collided and instead of bringing Navarro down, allowed him to break free with no defenders in his way to the end zone. On Reggie Corbin’s 43-yard scoring run, UW linebacker Jack Sanborn couldn’t get off a block fast enough to make a tackle in the hole.
In UW's 38-7 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 26, running back J.K. Dobbins was a load to tackle, and the Badgers were spread out due to the Buckeyes’ alignment. Dobbins ran for 163 yards, taking advantage of a defense that was on the field often.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard says his unit’s tackling issues come down to playing strong competition and focus.
“I think there’s a combination of things — playing some talented guys, and teams that know how to create space. We’ve got to finish those plays. We can’t hide, they’re going to be out there, we’ve got to make them. We were making them, and I think you saw a little bit of fatigue. I think you’ve got guys who are tired that aren’t completely focused. We’ve got to push past that,” Leonhard said.
“In order to be the team we want to be, you’ve got to be able to push through those moments.”
No. 18 Iowa — the team UW plays at 3 p.m. Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium — poses a different challenge than Illinois or Ohio State.
Where the Illini and Buckeyes create space and try to attack it, the Hawkeyes pack it in and rely on their offensive line to move bodies and create room to run. It’s a similar style to UW’s offense, which senior linebacker Chris Orr said is valuable in preparation for Iowa.
“This is where it comes alive. Sometimes when we play other teams, it’s almost like a completely different look. Their offensive line isn’t as big, but really athletic. Whereas playing these guys, more so the big, technique maulers that can move a little bit,” he said. “It’s great that you’re going to be comfortable in this game.”
Tackling well will be crucial against Iowa, which has struggled to score against some of the better defenses it has faced. The Hawkeyes scored 12 points at home against Penn State and 10 at Michigan.
UW can’t afford to let a short or medium gain turn into a big play after a missed tackle. Senior linebacker Zack Baun said a key will be to play more physical at the point of attack, which should allow the Badgers to get more defenders to the ball.
“Tackling has kind of gone a little unorthodox on us, I think we could get back to that,” Baun said. “So just making the first tackle, the first man on scene, securing him and then having guys rally to the ball.”
Players said part of the reason the missed tackles were so obvious on tape was that the team’s tackling was a strong suit early in the season. So when opponents started to get bigger gains on plays UW could have stopped sooner, the mistakes were clear.
Sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks said correcting those errors is a matter of having the right attitude.
“Sometimes, you can go do all the techniques and stuff like that, but it’s really a mindset to go in there, stick your face in there, and get the tackle and get the guy down. That’s something we for sure want to clean up. It’s something we work on every day,” Hicks said.
“We were good for the first six weeks, but the last couple weeks it’s something we haven’t been good at. We’ve been attacking it, especially this bye week, and we will be better.”
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