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Wisconsin’s big play defense matches Leonhard’s personality

Jim Leonhard’s quiet confidence is oozing out of the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers defense, and it’s paying off in a major way.

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If there is a hallmark of the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers defense, it is an extreme ability to make big plays no matter what the situation.

Have the offense throw an untimely interception deep in its own territory? How about a pick-six to pick you up.

Find yourself pinned back due to a bad punt or missed field goal? How about a turnover or a three-and-out for some help right back?

The point is, whatever the situation has been, usually the defense has risen to the occasion or created opportunities to kill off any chance for the opponent.

“Whenever we take the field our mentality is the same – just stop them,” said senior Alec James. “No matter if it is off a turnover or anything – it is the same every time. We just go out there and do our job no matter where the ball is or what the situation is.”

It’s no coincidence this killer instinct is coming out at the same time as new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard takes over either.

A look back at the Wisconsin and NFL career of defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard should tell you how unsurprising that attitude is. Leonhard was a big-play kind of guy, leaving Wisconsin as a three-time All-American in large part because he came up big when the defense needed him most.

He left Wisconsin tied for the most career interceptions with 21 and made 281 total tackles from his safety position in a far less aggressive defense back in his day.

But, that was then and today Leonhard is coaching a defense that is as aggressive as they come.

Wisconsin did it in multiple situations on Saturday, helping to lead the Badgers to its 38-13 Homecoming victory.

There was the opening drive pick-six and a 1st and goal at the 5-yard line stand. There were sacks when the Terps were getting rolling on the ground and opportune hits galore.

Maryland didn’t get off to a good start, but that was due to Wisconsin’s defense ramping up pressure to start to the game.

Junior College transfer Andrew Van Ginkel put pressure up the middle on Terps quarterback Max Bortenschlager. That resulted in a bad throw being released right in to the waiting arms of linebacker T.J. Edwards.

He took it 54 yards for a defensive touchdown.

But, it wasn’t just his pick-six to start the game that mattered. Edwards put up five tackles and also broke up a pass to go along with his pick-six.

Edwards has been a leader on this defense for a while, but this season he’s stepped up as more than just a tackling machine. He’s second on the team with 38 tackles, but also has three interceptions, three pass break ups and a sack to his name.

“T.J. is a really good football player,” said Chryst following Saturday’s win over Maryland. “I think what I’ve enjoyed seeing is that he doesn’t mind putting — being one of those guys to spark our team. Not just our defense.”

Wisconsin’s defense also stepped up when called upon just a few plays later. Maryland took over at the Badgers 5-yard line following a fumble by running back Jonathan Taylor.

Many believed that was six points waiting. The Badgers defense wasn’t amongst that crowd though, and it fed off the difficult situation in front of them.

Instead of six points, it was three unsuccessful plays and a chip-shot field goal.

“We just had to step up and make a play,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Like I said, the possession wasn’t over just because they started on the five. It doesn’t mean they have to get six. We just stuck in there, made a couple of plays, and finished them off in the red zone.”

Clearly the Wisconsin defense of 2017 is loving competing in the big moments, and most importantly they are winning a lot in those moments.

“I think they’re good defense,” Chryst said. “I think the coaches give them a good plan, but I think they relish those moments.”

Wisconsin’s schedule may not impress many, but the defense certainly has taken any challenge personally. They’ve also risen to nearly every challenge and come out ahead.

If there’s any indicator of just how Leonhard has impacted this group, it is in the confidence to make the big plays when your team needs them most.

Let’s see if that confidence can spill over as the schedule finally gets tougher.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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What do the analytics say about the Badgers 2nd half schedule?

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Yes, the loss to Michigan has everyone reeling and plenty of people questioning if the Wisconsin Badgers will ever truly become a national contender. 

It’s been one step forward and two giant steps backwards every time the path has been there for the Badgers to date. But, the bitter loss to Michigan is in the rearview mirror and it also was the end of the first half of the Badgers schedule. 

So, we thought it would be a good idea to see how some of the computers believe the second half of the schedule looks for the Cardinal and White. 

Will the Badgers run the table and get to 10 wins again? Is there disappointment ahead? 

Answers vary depending on the models used, but let’s explore how analytics see things going for Paul Chryst’s crew. 

Unsurprisingly, the analytics tell us that the Badgers are going to have one big game and a whole lot of control towards a potential 10-win season still in the mix. 

According to ESPN’s FPI index, Wisconsin will be favored in all but one game the remainder of the season. That one game of course is the trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. The FPI index gives the Badgers a 20 percent chance to win that game. 

However, they do give the Badgers better odds against most of the rest of the schedule. It starts with a 95 percent chance at winning the Homecoming matchup with Illinois this weekend. 

Wisconsin is also favored to win by 80 percent or more in two other games — Rutgers (97.6) and Minnesota (82.9). The Rutgers result is expected given how little resistance the Scarlet Knights have given to other teams at the bottom of the Big Ten pecking order so far this season. 

As for the other games, perhaps the toughest to figure out on the schedule will surprise you. That’s because the FPI believes Purdue will be the biggest challenge outside of the Penn State game. Wisconsin has just a 58.2 chance of winning that game. 

That leaves Northwestern in two weeks, and the FPI believes the Badgers have a 62.9 percent chance to win that game in Evanston. With the Wildcats finally getting on a win at Ryan Field last weekend, it will be interesting to see how this contest tracks after this upcoming weekend. 

So, if all things hold out ESPN’s FPI see’s the Badgers at 9-3 to end the regular season and still winning the Big Ten West division championship. However, their projections have UW closer to 8-4 and that would likely mean a third loss inside the conference and if that is the case it could be an interesting race in the West division. 

ESPN’s rating system is just one of many, so what do the others have to say? 

College Football Analytics believes a lot of the same things as ESPN does, but they give the Badgers a good chance of finishing 9-3 overall. To be exact, they put UW’s probability of winning 9 games at 64.4 percent. 

Perhaps the most interesting projection comes in the Penn State game, where they give the Badgers much better odds of pulling that game off. Currently, UW is given a win probability of 42.4 precent in that game and a score of 40.2 to 32.9. 

Like the FPI, this model has the Badgers winning every other game on its schedule and doing so handily over Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota. It also believes UW’s biggest toss-up game will be against Purdue, where the Badgers are just a 51 percent favorite to win that game. 

But, it’s always good to get a third set of data to work with. That comes from the S&P+ system and not shockingly, they too have the Badgers finishing 9-3 on the season. 

But, like the CFB Analytics numbers and unlike the FPI, they believe this game is going to be much closer than expected. The S&P+ system believes it will be less than a touchdown difference in the game. 

This model also sees the game at Purdue as the biggest toss up on the UW schedule, with the Badgers given a 57 percent chance of winning and only an expected winning margin of 3.2 points. 

So, as you can see there is a lot of agreement amongst the analytics side of the college football world. 

It’s hard to disagree with their thoughts given the relative softness of the Badgers overall schedule in the second half of the season. 

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Badgers win big battle for 2019 LB Spencer Lytle

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The 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football recruiting class already has hit new heights. But, there was one key piece to the puzzle the coaching staff was waiting on — its top of the board linebacker. 

On Saturday, UW got the answer it was looking for as three-star linebacker Spencer Lytle committed to the Badgers over his other finalist, Clemson. 

Lytle was the No. 1 outside linebacker on the Badgers board and the biggest missing piece to the puzzle for this recruiting class. While the three-star rating may not blow you away, make no mistake, Lytle was one of the most sought-after players at his position in the country. 

It is easy to see why when you put on the tape, and equally so when you see his numbers on paper. Lytle had 77 tackles, 3.0 sacks, and nine additional hurries for Servite High School in Anaheim last season. 

He held offers from 40-plus programs, most of which reads like a who’s who of national contenders on an annual basis. In the end, it came down to Wisconsin and Clemson, with few really knowing where Lytle was leaning. 

The Badgers got their biggest target at outside linebacker and alongside in-state product Leo Chenal, appear done with recruiting the overall linebacker position for the 2019 class. 

UW’s class now has 13 verbal commits and Lytle’s pledge pushed the Badgers near the top 25 in the national team rankings. Currently, Wisconsin sits No. 26 in the 247Sports composite rankings. The Badgers jumped seven spots with this announcement on Saturday. 

Lytle was able to keep his recruitment tight-lipped and same with his commitment choice. Few knew what was really going to happen when he announced earlier on Saturday, but it went the Badgers way. 

Wisconsin also continues to make small inroads in recruiting one of the biggest states for talent in the country — California. Lytle’s commitment means back-to-back seasons with a prospect from the state, as Alexander Smith signed in the 2018 class and will likely redshirt this upcoming season. 

Equally important, Lytle is attending one of the top high school programs in the country this year in St. John Bosco. They are the preseason No. 1 team in the country and consistently put out high-level FBS players. 

While Lytle will only be there for one season, he could be a good foot in the door for UW at the school. 

It will be interesting to see how quickly Lytle fits in at Wisconsin, because after this season things will be wide open on one side of the outside linebacker spot as Andrew Van Ginkel will graduate. 

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Badgers get commitment No. 9 for 2019 class

UW gets commitment No. 9 for 2019 recruiting class, as North Carolina athlete becomes second from the state to pledge to the Badgers

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This isn’t your average Wisconsin Badgers football recruiting cycle to say the least. While the class usually takes shape over the summer prior to the senior year, UW has had some really early success in the 2019 recruiting cycle.

It’s a pattern that continued on Friday afternoon as 3-star athlete Marcus Graham committed to the Badgers. He gave his verbal pledge after a two-day visit to the UW campus.

He is rated as the No. 34 ranked dual threat quarterback in the country and the No. 54 overall prospect in the state of North Carolina per the 247Sports composite rankings.

The Badgers were the first Power 5 school to offer Graham and following the visit he jumped on the offer he received. Other offers came from the likes of East Carolina, Air Force, Old Dominion and a few others.

Graham played quarterback this past season, and according to Badger247 he put up some huge numbers. He completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,270 yards and 16 touchdowns to just one interception. He also rushed for 858 yards and 15 scores, averaging better than eight yards per carry. Graham added 13 receptions for 265 yards and four touchdowns at wide receiver.

Wisconsin’s ability to scout and be confident in its offers paid dividends here, as other schools like North Carolina, Virginia Tech, South Carolina and Wake Forest all were showing interest but none had given out an offer yet.

So, what is Wisconsin getting?

First off, Graham is a versatile athlete and at 6-0, 175 pounds could wind up at wide receiver or in the secondary. It will take some transition due to his play of quarterback in high school, but that will not be his position in college to say the least.

Graham also fits the mold of what the Badgers are looking for out of their skill position players on the outside. He’s got plenty of speed to burn and he’s got a lot of natural movement to his game. Things come naturally to him, and instinct is hard to teach.

It appears Graham will also be someone who could be an early enrollee for the Badgers, which may be to his ultimate benefit given his position isn’t totally set in stone just yet.

Overall, this is the type of below-the-radar prospect that Paul Chryst and his staff have been really good at evaluating and prioritizing. They have also seemed to work out well once in the Cardinal and White.

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Van Vliet announces choice to transfer from Badgers

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The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program will have one less senior on its roster for the 2018-19 season than it did entering the offseason.

On Tuesday night, reserve forward Andy Van Vliet announced his decision to transfer for his final season of eligibility via his Twitter account.

Van Vliet’s new destination wasn’t made clear, but it appears he will seek out opportunities within D1 basketball going forward.

The Badgers will not restrict where he moves and appear ready to assist in whatever is needed with this move according to a statement from head coach Greg Gard.

“We thank Andy for what he did for our program over the last three seasons and we wish him the best moving forward,” Gard said. “We will help him in any way we can as he looks for a new school to continue his career.”

The 6-11 forward came to the Badgers as a three-point sharp shooter and the hope was his height and shooting ability would give UW an advantage in stretching other forwards beyond the three-point line.

Van Vliet appeared in 31 games over two seasons at Wisconsin. The Antwerp, Belgium, native averaged 3.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in 17 games in 2017-18, notching career highs of 18 points and eight rebounds vs. South Carolina State.

He entered this season as a starter and that South Carolina State opener gave plenty of hope for him to be a big contributor for the team. Instead, Van Vliet’s defense became a liability that his inconsistent shooting couldn’t overcome.

Ultimately, his playing time began to dwindle and he was seated deep on the bench for most of the 2017-18 season.

His departure leaves another open scholarship for the Badgers, which will be interesting to see how they fill.

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