Wisconsin’s defense has been the surprise of the Badgers’ season, and it has one more week to tune up before what might be its biggest Big Ten game this year.
Saturday’s trip to Purdue gives the No. 25 Badgers a great chance to extend their winning streak to four before No. 15 Nebraska visits Madison for a game that could ultimately decide the Big Ten West.
Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1), though, figures to remain focused on the Boilermakers (3-6, 1-4), given that it has already been tripped up on the road by a lesser Big Ten opponent. That Oct. 4 loss at Northwestern might seem like quite a while ago after the Badgers have strung together wins over Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers — the last two by a combined score of 89-7.
Last Saturday’s 37-0 win over the Scarlet Knights was highlighted by a defensive effort in which the Badgers allowed 139 yards of total offense — their lowest Big Ten total since limiting Penn State to 131 in 2001.
Wisconsin has the nation’s No. 1 total defense (253.8 yards per game), ranks third in scoring defense (14.1 points per game) and has allowed 68 plays of 10-plus yards this season — the fewest of any FBS team.
“It’s kind of the unsung hero,” coach Gary Andersen said of a unit that had to replace seven starters. “One guy makes a play this week and the next guy makes a play the next week. There are a lot of guys who are stepping up, and a lot of pieces to the puzzle. They’ve got a chance to be special.”
On the other side of the ball, the Badgers have been rolling with an average of 42.3 points and 470.0 yards in their last three. They’ve turned the ball over once in that time after giving it away 11 times through five games.
Against Rutgers — as usual — the majority of the damage was done on the ground with Corey Clement rushing for 131 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, while top back Melvin Gordon gained 128 yards and two scores on 19 rushes.
“We’re a well-structured team,” Clement said. “We’re still coming along in the process. As the season goes on, things are going to get tougher so we are going to have to toughen up in some areas and just execute in some other areas that can win us some games.”
Gordon has averaged 186.3 yards over his last six games, and ran for 147 and three TDs on 16 carries in last season’s 41-10 win over Purdue.
Wisconsin has won the last eight meetings with the Boilermakers and hasn’t lost at Purdue since 1997, going 5-0 since.
Purdue is 2-32 against ranked opponents since Nov. 15, 2003, including losses in 10 straight.
Last Saturday’s 35-14 defeat at then-No. 17 Nebraska was the latest in that stretch.
The offense had been putting up Wisconsin-like rushing numbers in its previous three games, averaging 258.7 yards and 35.7 points.
The loss might have been most frustrating because Purdue’s porous defense limited the Cornhuskers to 297 total yards after giving up an average of 479.3 over the previous four games.
“We’re right there,” quarterback Austin Appleby said. “Defense plays good and the offense comes up short. Offense plays good, defense comes up short. We’ve got to play together.”
They’ll have to do so without top receiver Danny Anthrop. The junior injured his right leg while returning a punt in the second half, and coach Darrell Hazell announced Monday that Anthrop’s season is over due to a torn ACL.
“It’s a big blow,” Appleby said. “He’s one of the best players on our team, not only on offense but on special teams the energy he brings. He’s a leader in our locker room and we’re definitely going to miss him.”