LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre acknowledges it’s not as easy to prepare for a season-opening opponent as it will be later in the season.
Of course, Dupre said, the Tigers usually have an idea of their first opponent’s scheme, based on film from the previous year. They can develop scouting reports on tendencies and personnel to a certain degree. But opponents add new wrinkles, and philosophies can change with the addition or subtraction of players.
And then there’s situations like the one the LSU offense is facing when it plays Wisconsin on Saturday at Lambeau Field, which is far from a common one. The Badgers' old defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, is now LSU’s new one, adding a well-publicized layer of intrigue to a game with plenty of it.
“Coach Aranda can only give us his two cents,” Dupre said. “But at the end of the day, he hasn’t been there, and we don’t know what they’ve been cooking up at all.”
With Aranda joining the Tigers' staff, LSU has an inherent advantage of more easily being able to scout Wisconsin’s defensive personnel. The Badgers return only six starters, one of which, former Freshman All-America linebacker T.J. Edwards, will not play because of a broken ankle. From last year’s defense, Wisconsin lost first-team All-American and Big 10 Linebacker of the Year Joe Schobert and three of their four starters in the secondary.
But what can the LSU offense expect from new Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme? Not much different from what they saw against Aranda’s Wisconsin defense two years ago, Dupre said.
Why? Because it worked.
“They were the No. 2 (total) defense in the country last year,” Dupre said. “In my opinion, if a new defensive coordinator came in and tried to change things — even though each coach is going to have their own schemes — coming to a program that it worked tremendously well with the previous coach, you shouldn’t change much things.”
Under Aranda’s deceptive 3-4 scheme, the Badgers also led the nation in scoring defense, giving up 13.7 points per game. Aranda’s units allowed the least amount of yards nationally during the three years he was the Wisconsin coordinator, stifling Leonard Fournette in his collegiate debut in 2014.
Wilcox steps into Aranda’s shoes after being fired from USC, as the Trojans finished 65th in total defense and 50th in scoring defense in 2015. Still, left guard Will Clapp recognizes the talent left from last year’s Wisconsin defense and is expecting a version of the 3-4 Okie front, something Aranda will run at LSU.
If anything, LSU will have benefitted from facing a similar scheme in practice everyday, Clapp said.
“Honestly, there a very gap sound defense,” he said. “Everybody plays together on that defense, and they have some good pass rushers. Those guys really know how to attack the edge and have a lot of moves to go to. So that’s stuff that we’ve all been preparing for.”
They called it the 50, Billy Cannon says.
Even with Schobert graduating and Edwards not in the lineup, the linebacking corps is still the clear strength of the Wisconsin defense. Vince Biegel, the most experienced player on the team with 42 games under his belt, is the Badgers' most potent pass rusher, ranking eighth in program history with 17.5 sacks.
T.J. Watt, brother of former Wisconsin defensive end and current Houston Texan J.J. Watt, will start opposite of Biegel with Chris Orr and Jack Cichy manning the inside linebacker position.
“They’re very fundamental,” Fournette said. “Their end No. 47 (Vince Biegel), he’s talented, man. It’s going to be an interesting matchup. We just have to play our job, do what we have to do.”
Dupre said limiting mistakes against discipline defenders might be what defines LSU success in the opener. As he recalls, the Wisconsin secondary played man-to-man coverage against LSU in 2014 and are highlighted by 5-foot-9 senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton, a Big 10 honorable mention selection in 2015.
And where they do lack in talent, they make up for in execution, Dupre said.
“They’re going to do everything right,” he said. “A lot of guys might be prided more on talent, trying to get away with their talent. But they’re one of the teams that you can’t do anything wrong because they’re going to be there to make all of the plays they have to make and they’re going to be in the right position.”