Lack of elite defense holding Badgers back

De'Anthony Thomas ripped off two huge runs against a Wisconsin defense that gave up 621 yards. Kelvin Kuo/US Presswire

PASADENA, Calif. -- The simple storyline coming out of the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO will likely be that Wisconsin simply wasn't fast enough to beat Oregon.

Plenty of evidence would support that conclusion. Never in the 98 years of the Rose Bowl has a team averaged as much as 9.7 yards per play, as the Ducks did in their 45-38 win. Oregon racked up 621 total yards and had scoring plays of 91, 64, 54 and 41 yards as Badgers defenders often hopelessly chased from behind.

Wisconsin players bristled at the notion that they couldn't run with Oregon, and not surprisingly. They've heard the too-slow critique for years and have won enough games to disprove much of it. They preferred to blame Monday's defensive performance on things like "gap accountability," missed assignments and just plain brain cramps.

"I think we lost our mind on some plays," defensive end Louis Nzegwu said.

Fans and media are often guilty of not thinking clearly when trying to explain a team's losses. Wisconsin has now dropped two straight Rose Bowls by the thinnest of margins, and there will be those who try to diagnose why the program "can't win the big one." It's the same stuff Oregon heard until late Monday evening. Never mind that the Ducks lost close games in their last two BCS losses, or that the Badgers might be celebrating a second straight Rose win if just a couple of plays had gone differently.

Yet if there's anything the past two Rose Bowls have taught us -- and especially this one -- it's that Wisconsin needs more difference-makers on defense.

That doesn't necessarily mean more speed, though that wouldn't hurt. Even though De'Anthony Thomas and LaMichael James spent a lot of time gliding down the field alone or with a friendly escort, the Badgers didn't come away thinking they couldn't keep up with the Ducks.

"I thought they were fast, but I thought we matched them pretty well," safety Aaron Henry said. "Whenever we did what we were supposed to do, we got off the field. When we allowed them to run through holes without being touched, they took advantage of it."

Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema used the month of preparation to simulate Oregon's accelerated pace as much as possible. The defense faced two scout team offenses at once during practice and went through extra conditioning work to get ready for the up tempo.

It turned out that didn't play much of a factor. The Ducks often didn't go at warp speed with their snaps. They just scored really quickly. Two examples were particularly galling for Wisconsin.

The Badgers had pinned the ball with a punt on the Oregon 9-yard-line late in the first quarter, only to have Thomas rip off a Rose-record 91-yard touchdown. On the first series after halftime when adjustments should have been fine tuned, the Ducks scored in just 33 seconds on a 64-yard Thomas run.

"With a month to prepare, we shouldn't have had problems like that," linebacker Mike Taylor said. "Their mixing up of formations and things they do get you off of your keys. But there's really no excuse for it."

Oregon averaged 8.6 yards per rush -- another Rose record -- and quarterback Darron Thomas threw for 268 yards, his third-highest total of the season. Wisconsin only sacked him twice and did not stop much of anything outside of the Ducks' screen game.

"What hurt us was the play-action pass," Nzegwu said. "We respected their run, and when some of our D-ends hit the edge we couldn't tell whether it was a run or pass. We kept on following the running back, and that kind of hurt our pass rush."

What also hurts is a lack of defenders who can blow up plays on their own. Nzegwu returned a fumble Taylor caused by a hit on Thomas, and Henry came up with an interception. But there were too few other impact plays. Oregon has lost under coach Chip Kelly when it has faced teams with standout defensive line and other disruptive presences, like Nick Fairley of Auburn or Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. The Badgers have many good defensive players -- Taylor and fellow linebacker Chris Borland were All-Big Ten selections -- but not enough stars or blue-chip NFL prospects.

The program has shown it can produce those types of players. Defensive end J.J. Watt won the Lott Trophy last year and just wrapped up a strong rookie regular season for the Houston Texans. Even with Watt last year, though, Wisconsin struggled to contain TCU's skill players in a 21-19 Rose Bowl loss.

Wisconsin is known for offensive studs like quarterback Russell Wilson and Montee Ball and those NFL offensive linemen; Bielema's next challenge is to attract and develop similarly elite talent on the other side of the ball. Wisconsin may have to rely more on its defense next year without Wilson, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and most likely Ball.

It's true that Oregon will make a lot of teams look slow when its offense is clicking. But it's also true that teams don't win many BCS games by giving up 621 yards and 45 points.

"We didn't even challenge them on two or three of their scores, and nobody can win doing that," Bielema said.

The Badgers were just a couple plays short of winning every game they played this season, so a major overhaul is not in order. A few more defensive difference-makers, however, could have changed those outcomes.