Through two games, Wisconsin's new look has worked marvelously as the Badgers held Tennessee Tech to just 113 yards in their second straight shutout to start the 2013 season, registering a 48-0 shutout Saturday.
The last time Wisconsin recorded back-to-back shutouts was in 1958. Only surprised at the time elapsed between those accomplishments, senior linebacker Chris Borland said the shutouts don't come as a surprise to him with the way the defense has played and developed this season.
"I feel like it's what we should have done," said Borland, who had five total tackles. "I don't feel that we should pat ourselves on the back for shutting out these two teams. There's still a lot of things we can improve on, one thing that's great to see is our depth. When our twos go in they keep the points off."
What made the performance dominant was the battle at the line of scrimmage, something Wisconsin's front seven controlled from start to finish.
On Tech's first play from scrimmage, tailback Zack Ziegler fumbled after a hit from cornerback Darius Hillary jarred the ball free into the arms of a waiting safety Dezmen Southward. That play set the tone for the defense for the rest of the game.
"It put some doubt in their head and obviously that's not so much up to me as it Darius. He got the ball out, it fell right in my hands," said Southward, who had a fumble recovery called back last week against UMass. "As a defense it definitely helps us a lot because we want to get turnovers. It puts our offense in a great situation, allows them to score and it changes the game completely."
Tech was unable to string many positive plays together in the first half. A week after racking up 63 points and 505 yards of total offense, the Golden Eagles ran just two offensive plays in Wisconsin territory.
"That was probably the most we've been just dominated at the line of scrimmage I think on both sides," Tech head coach Watson Brown said.
Tech finished the first half with just 57 yards on 25 plays. For the game, Tech averaged 2.3 yards per play and surprised the Badgers because dual-threat quarterback Darian Stone, who finished with seven carries for 16 yards, didn't run as much on the read-option plays.
"They showed on film that he liked to keep it a lot, so we were surprised today, but that's option football that goes back 100 years," Borland said. "You've got a man on the dot, a man on the quarterback, man on the pitch. No matter if it's the spread or an exotic look at the end of the day those are the three guys who might carry the ball and you have to defend them man to man."
When Tech did try to run the read-option, it was read well by the Wisconsin defensive line, which stayed in their lanes and swarmed to the ball. The Badgers held Tech to just 44 rushing yards on 30 carries.
"We did a good job of tackling them, wrapping them up," Southward said. "(We) didn't give them a chance to be in the open field, which we don't want to do. It's not so much on them as it is we were getting stops and how much we were in the right places and doing the right things."
The Badgers forced nine punts and a lot of those were because their 3-4 defense caused confusion. UW's defensive line was moving around often, shifting from balanced formations into overloaded sets, with blitzing linebacker combinations.
Wisconsin allowed just 69 passing yards on 19 attempts with Tech's longest pass went for 14 yards, slowing the Golden Eagles speed in the open field.
"A lot of times physical play can make you not play as well," Brown said. "And last week we stood back there like the (Stave) did and threw the ball. Today (Stone) was running for his life when we would pass."
Linebacker Connor O'Neill was a source of that pressure in his first career start, all over the field to lead the team with nine tackles. Other than the forced fumble, Hillary had four tackles and a pass breakup.
Something that has also helped Badgers shutout two straight opponents has been forcing turnovers. Borland said it has been more of a focus in fall camp, which has translated into four turnovers in just two games.
"It's something we talk about every day, not that we didn't in the past, but it's just been such a focus ," Borland added. "Guys are really taking it to heart; going after that ball and the second guy in trying to make the play in the air, too."
The game was merely a tune-up for the speed the Badgers will have to face next week against PAC-12 member Arizona State, which is a bigger and faster team than the FCS bewildered by the Badgers Saturday.
"It all starts up front, but a team like Arizona State throws a lot of curveballs at you offensively," Borland said. "They run high-tempo, a lot of different personnel groupings and some unbalanced sets so they kind of stress you mentally and then they've got a lot of speed. That'll be a big test for us."
The game will hopefully prepare Badgers for when they come up against the likes of dual-threat Big Ten quarterbacks Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Kain Colter (Northwestern) in back-to-back conference games.
"We're one of the best (defenses) because we're smart," Southward said. "We have a lot of talent, we have some speed and we're tough. We're going to do the right things most of the time. Any time you have that, you can be one of the best defenses in the nation."