By Charles Renning
COURTESY UW ATHLETICS COMMUNICATIONS
Wisconsin defensive back Jim Leonhard, a preseason All-American, takes the role of field general for the Badgers defensive unit.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday, September 17, 2004
If figuring out a way to stop its opponents' offensive attacks was the Arizona football team's focus so far this season, finding a way to crack Wisconsin's top-notch defense has taken center stage this week.
In Arizona's first two contests of the year, the Wildcats' focus centered around Northern Arizona' all-conference quarterback and Utah's Heisman hopeful.
But In Wisconsin, the Badgers are all about the D.
After defeating Central Florida and Nevada Las-Vegas so far, Wisconsin's defense is the only unit in the nation with two or more games under its belt that has yet to allow a touchdown.
"To say that I expect no touchdowns after the first few games - I'd be lying if I said I expected that," said Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez.
A big reason for the Badgers' stiff defense has been the play of their front line. In just two games, Wisconsin has picked up six sacks and 16 tackles for a loss.
"I think it all starts up front," Alvarez said, "and we're able to get pressure with four guys."
Senior defensive tackle Erasmus James anchors the Badgers defensive line, leading the team in tackles for a loss, with three, and has been a big surprise so far to Alvarez and his staff.
James was forced to sit out last season due to injury, but has found his niche during the Badgers' non-conference schedule.
Location: Madison, Wisc.
Founded: 1848 2003
Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Head coach: Barry Alvarez
Player to watch: DB Jim Leonhard
Depth has also played a huge role in the defensive line's success.
The Badgers play eight to ten different players on the defensive line to keep players fresh and productive.
"They're very physical up front. That is probably the strength of their team," said Arizona head coach Mike Stoops. "Their D-line is very active, very strong and physical up front. They're very, very good."
With the emergence of a productive defensive line, the Badgers have been able to do open up the rest of their defense this season.
Alvarez said the team has to blitz less often, allowing linebackers and defensive backs to concentrate on other jobs. This has made the transition for some newcomers that much easier.
Junior linebacker Dontez Sanders and sophomore Mark Zalewski are both seeing significant playing time this season. Both have filled in well, recording 10 and eight tackles, respectively.
"We really had a question mark at linebacker, but we're getting very good play out of Zalewski, and Dontez is always around the ball," said Alvarez. "That group is really filling in and understanding where they have to be and where they fit in, in defense."
One position the Badgers weren't worried about coming into the year was free safety, where they returned two-year starter Jim Leonhard.
Leonhard has shown why he was a preseason All-America pick this season. Also the team's top punt returner, Leonhard is second on the team with 13 tackles and has also recorded an 86-yard touchdown off a blocked field goal.
Leonhard also comes into the game with 18 career interceptions, just three shy of the all-time Wisconsin record. He already holds the team's career mark in punt return yardage.
Even more remarkable than Leonhard's numbers is how he got to where he is. Leonhard came into his freshman season as a walk-on player and saw immediate action on special teams and worked into a starting role in year two. Since then he has become of the most successful players in program history.