Collin Wilder and other leaders on the University of Wisconsin football team have added something difficult to quantify to their list of responsibilities.
Starting the season fast is out the window after the Badgers lost three of their first four games for the first time since 1990 — none of the players were alive that year. They still can win the Big Ten Conference's West Division, but it's difficult to envision the Badgers winning each of their remaining conference games to get that done given the way they have played.
But the leaders' first focus is not allowing the team to come apart. They can't allow the frustrating losses they've experienced — marked by turnovers and lopsided fourth quarters despite the defense being able to keep UW (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) alive for the first three quarters — to drive a wedge between them.
"I saw it happen more last year, last season," Wilder said after UW's home loss to Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 2.
"Me and the rest of the leaders on this team, we agreed that we will not let that happen again. You saw what happened last year — we were what, 4-3? And I think that was a piece of it was our team getting divided. I will do everything I possibly can, I know that the rest of leaders can say the same thing, to not let that happen again."
The senior safety said he's not seeing signs of the team's fabric splitting ahead of its first true road game at Illinois (2-4, 1-2). However, there have been moments where the seams are starting to stretch.
The first and most obvious cause of tension is the imbalanced nature of the team. The defense for the most part has played at the elite level expected of it, ranking third in the FBS in total defense (249 yards allowed per game) and first in rushing defense (45.2 ypg). The offense has struggled to stay on the field, going 16 of 61 on third down, and turned over the ball 11 times.
UW's defense has been on the field to allow 74 of the 102 points the opposition has scored this season — opponents have three pick 6s and a kickoff return touchdown. Thirty of the 74 points the defense has allowed have come on possessions following a UW turnover.
That's sparked conversation among UW's defensive players and their coaches.
"Coach (Jim) Leonhard and coach Hank Poteat hit on it a lot, we've kind of got to — it's a long shot because we're in college — but the 2000 Ravens, the year they won the Super Bowl, their offense wasn't the best but their defense didn't allow any points," senior cornerback Caesar Williams said. "That's the standard we're trying to be held accountable to."
The 2000 Ravens, who had one of the NFL's all-time great defenses, led the league with 10.3 points per game allowed en route to a championship.
Leonhard, UW's defensive coordinator, was part of the 2009 New York Jets defense that led the league with 14.8 points allowed per game but went 9-7 in the regular season with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. Leonhard said a key to playing on a defense with an underperforming offense is to be open about the situation.
"Our players are smart," Leonhard said. "We have to play well, we have to do our thing. Defensively, it's one of those where you kind of have to put the blinders on. I don't care if you're scoring points or not because it changes. How many 51-48 games are lost in college football? It goes both ways where you never know how that game is going to play out and you kind of have to just continue to push."
There's frustration building on the offense as well, with key playmakers such as senior Danny Davis saying the offense's lack of production is grating.
One element of the offense that's been noticeably absent this season is the jet-sweep run. It's been a staple play for the program, a way to attack the defense when it's not being honest in covering the edges of UW's line. But UW has only tried five jet sweeps — four by senior Kendric Pryor and one by sophomore Chimere Dike. Those plays have gained 44 yards, an average of 11 yards per try.
"I'm not too sure. I honestly couldn't tell you," Davis said when asked why the jet sweeps haven't occurred more often. "I just go out there and whatever is called, I go out there and try to perform it to my best."
It'd be reasonable if UW coach Paul Chryst, who calls the offensive plays, is trying to protect Pryor and Davis from taking extra hits after he saw his offense fall apart when that pair missed most of UW's games a season ago due to concussions. Chryst also could be worried about the exchange between quarterback Graham Mertz and a receiver after Mertz has had issues with handoffs to running backs. But Chryst may have to take the risk more often to give his offense a spark.
Chryst speaks often about consistency — individuals needing to perform well repeatedly and the team as a whole needing to exhibit a steady presence. That hasn't happened. And it's painful for a veteran team to go through.
"When the game got closer (against Michigan), the defense stepped up, the offense stepped up, it's a balance," Williams said. "When you put so much just on one end of the ball, I think you're going to get those mistakes and inconsistency because you're getting so much thrown at you."
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