Listen. Defenders are the enemy. The heathens. They are the barbarians at the gates. The defensive coordinator is Attila, leading his Huns like a scourge across the steppes of Central Asia with no regard for the welfare and well-being of the offenses they encounter. They are the Luddites, standing in the way of the progress of the inside zones and tunnel screens and RPOs that are advancing the game of football. They are agents of chaos, disrupting the harmonious convergence that is a beautifully choreographed offensive scheme. They are not the good guys, no matter how much praise the “experts” heap upon them.
But every Batman needs his Joker, and sometimes, begrudgingly, one has to appreciate the bad guys. Especially when, seemingly overmatched, they foil the opponent at every turn.
Washington State’s defense is undersized and relatively inexperienced on the interior. Wisconsin’s offensive line is ... um ... not. This is a group littered with 4- and 5-star recruits that returned three starters from a unit that paved the way for just under 3000 yards rushing last year. Braelon Allen found 1200 yards behind that line, and Chez Mellusi brought in 800 more. The center, Joe Tippmann, is an Outland Trophy contender. The tight ends, of which there were approximately twelve on the field on any given down, are no slouches either.
The Badgers should have played road grader to the Cougs’ strip of asphalt. That was the plan. Wazzu’s defense defied the plan. Just were incredibly disrespectful to the plan. Let’s take a look at how the bad guys ruined everything. Along the way we’re going to spotlight the young man who has quickly become the ringleader of this rogue’s gallery, Daiyan Henley. He’s been everywhere on the defensive side of the ball for the Cougs, making plays in all phases. He’s been incredibly fun to watch. Dang it, I mean frustrating to watch. Defense is bad and you can’t make me enjoy it.
With a deep sigh of annoyance, let’s break down some tape.
We’ll start about midway through the first quarter. Wisconsin is in what I would consider their base formation: Ace. Not the Air Raid version, but the one with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). WSU responds, as they will for most of the contest, by loading the box in a way that we don’t often see in college football these days. Six defenders are at the line of scrimmage, two linebackers behind them, and the corners locked up in man press coverage on the receivers.
Wisconsin is going to run Power, pulling the left tackle and center to the short side of the field and they will end up gaining five or six yards. But don’t focus on the end result. Instead pay attention to a few things, one big picture and three individual defenders. First, look at where the line of scrimmage gets reset by the defense. Of the seven Wisconsin blockers, six of them are a yard behind the line of scrimmage at first contact. That is a massive win for the defense, as they are controlling the gaps on the interior. That would prove to be a recurring theme throughout the day.
Individually, we’re looking at three players. Nusi Malani, the Virginia transfer at defensive tackle, and the two inside linebackers, Travion Brown and our spotlight, Daiyan Henley. It’s tough to tell without an end zone angle, but Malani looks like he’s lined up in a 2-technique, head up over the playside guard. He’s going to pinch hard into A-gap, beating the down block of the left guard, who is trying to free out the pulling center.* The center does get out, but Malani’s penetration disrupts his angle, forcing him as much as three yards into the backfield. This makes a huge difference in where Travion Brown takes on the block. Instead of a few yards downfield, Brown meets the center right at the line of scrimmage. Despite being outweighed by about a pickup truck, Brown virtually stalemates the block. That allows Henley, who comes from a step or two inside the hash and scrapes over the top beating the block of the right tackle, to get a clean angle on the running back.
All the pieces matter. If Malani doesn’t alter the center’s path, Henley is fighting through traffic to get around Brown and the center, and likely doesn’t get a clean look at the back. It’s probably another five yards before Henley finds him, if he ever does.
*No wonder these guys are 4- and 5-stars. If you’ve got a guy who is athletic enough to snap and pull outside the tight end, you can do a lot of things. Unless the defense is being a bunch of jerks.
A bit later on the same drive, we have Power again to the offense’s left. WSU has more of a 5-3 look, probably because of the off-set tight end at the bottom of the screen. Penetration again disrupts this play. Armani Marsh is on the edge and despite being outweighed by about a baby rhinoceros, he shoots the C-gap and forces the pulling center to get depth around him and the left tackle he’s occupying. The center can’t effectively get to the edge to seal Brown, who, along with Brennan Jackson, forces Braelon Allen back inside where the cavalry is coming.
Here’s a couple clips of Ron Stone, Jr just abusing Wisconsin’s right tackle because that’s fun. I mean super irritating. Grr. First in the run game, being disruptive in the backfield with a gap-controlling assist from Antonio Pule, allowing Marsh to run the play down from the backside.
And then flushing the Wisconsin QB into a sack at the hands of Christian Mejia.
Third and short should have been easy money for Wisconsin. With their size and strength and a pair of backs like Allen and Mellusi, this is what they built their offense to accomplish. But on Saturday the undersized Wazzu defensive front consistently frustrated the Badger line, resetting the line of scrimmage into the offensive backfield. Here’s the 3rd & 2 that set up the 4th down stop that would lead to the Cougs’ first touchdown. Again, focus on where the Badger offensive line is being forced to play football.
With one exception, all of their feet are at or behind the LOS. Not ideal for a power running offense.
Armani Marsh is listed at 5’10” and 188 pounds. Despite being outweighed by roughly a baby grand piano by the two pulling Wisconsin linemen, he has a completely reckless disregard for his body. Also watch Henley just demolish a tight end. As the kids these days say, zero chill.
It’s pretty typical for most run schemes to leave the backside defensive end or last man on the line of scrimmage unblocked. Whether they freeze him with a potential zone read, or just expect him to get caught up in the wash and unable to affect the play, leaving that defender alone gives you another blocker closer to the play and better leverage on the front side. The problem is that if your frontside gets gummed up enough by a gap sound defense, that defensive end/overhang defender—if he doesn’t have quarterback responsibility on a zone read—can chase the back down. Brennan Jackson is the beneficiary of Marsh’s missile impersonation here, and Marsh was on the other end of things in the Stone clip above.
Let’s end with a look at Daiyan Henley. Linebacker was a pretty giant question mark coming into the season. Justus Rogers and Jahad Woods had played approximately a trillion snaps on the defensive side of the ball since they came to the Palouse shortly after the Korean War. Both had a knack for coming up with significant plays in big moments, and were leaders on the field. That void was going to have to be filled, and Henley has thus far proven up to the task both on the field with his play, and off the field with a Gabe Marks-level press conference. Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone were known commodities, but Henley has come in and put his stamp on the defense. His athleticism lets him play sideline-to-sideline, and he has great instincts when deciphering run fits. That’s especially impressive considering he’s only been playing linebacker since his junior year at Nevada. He worked his way up to All-Mountain West billing, and, small sample size granted, looks like he could end up finding himself on a similar list for the Pac-12 at the end of this season.
If there is one play from Saturday that exemplifies Henley in particular, and this Cougar defense as a whole, it’s this: diagnosing a screen and beating 650-plus pounds of blocks to get a tackle for loss:
There is no reason this screen doesn’t work. The Badgers have two blockers for Henley, one for Mejia chasing the play, and the corners are in man so they have their backs turned to the play and are running away from it. This was the right play call at the right time, but the defense—mostly Daiyan Henley in this case—just had to go and mess it all up.
It’s only two results, and there’s a pretty significant test lurking in two weeks in the form of the Oregon Ducks, who are going to spread out the Cougar defense to find lanes instead of slamming sixteen bodies into the box. But considering that in the Pac-12 North there is a lean towards an inside running game—Stanford, Cal, Oregon State—it makes Saturday’s performance that much more meaningful. If the defense can consistently hold up against the grind that a Wisconsin running attack can put on you, controlling the line of scrimmage against less talented opponents should be possible, even an expectation. It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a Wazzu squad that was led by its defense. We might have one this season. Grit? Toughness? Heart? Yeah, sure, all of that. More importantly, they’re gap sound, quick to the point of attack, and disruptive.
Ugh, fine, they’re fun to watch. I said it. Happy?
1700 words on the defense.
I need a shower.