Wisconsin has one of the top-ranked defenses at the halfway point of the college football season thanks to a front seven that has been fantastic. Wisconsin will enter Saturday’s road game at Purdue behind only No. 1 Georgia in yards allowed per game against FBS opponents and ranks No. 4 defensively in yards per play allowed.

Opponents have quickly realized they’re not going to have a ton of success running the ball against the Badgers, and every rushing defense statistic you’ll find will show Wisconsin is not allowing much running room at all. The Badgers are second in rushing yards allowed per game and third in yards per rush attempt allowed.

Wisconsin survived the triple-option in a close win over Army last weekend, and the Badgers will face an entirely different offensive system against Purdue. While the Black Knights run the ball at a higher rate than any team in college football (90.1% of snaps), the Badgers will not face a team that passes as often as the Boilermakers on their regular season schedule.

Over the weekend, we saw what Iowa would do when it loses the turnover battle for the first time all season, and it resulted in a 24-7 loss to the Boilermakers at home. Additionally, it was evident Purdue can throw the ball efficiently against a very good defense as wide receiver David Bell had another fantastic performance against the Hawkeyes with 11 receptions for 240 yards and a touchdown. In 3 games against Iowa during his career, Bell has 35 receptions for 558 yards with 5 touchdowns. If he can do that type of damage against a defense that ranks high every year, Wisconsin needs to be ready.

Bell has gone for more than 100 yards in 4 of the 5 games he’s played in this season, and in the one he didn’t, he left the game in the fourth quarter with a concussion. Bell ranked 4th in the nation in receiving yards per game (135.8) and No. 8 in total receiving yards despite missing time. He has 679 yards on 38 receptions with 4 touchdowns.

The Badgers’ game against Purdue was canceled last season, but in the only game in which Bell faced Wisconsin’s secondary, he caught 12 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown as a freshman in 2019.

Purdue puts the ball in the air on 60% of its offensive plays, which is the 9th highest rate in the country. Wisconsin’s passing defense actually ranks pretty well compared to the rest of college football, but if you had to pick one area where the Badgers can be beaten defensively, it’s through the air on deep balls, and the Boilermakers certainly have a playmaker who can get behind the secondary.

Wisconsin has allowed 9 pass plays of 30 yards or more, which is tied for 61st in the country. This is slightly better than half of FBS teams, but teams have thrown the ball on just 49.6% of plays against the Badgers, the 83rd highest rate. Bell has 8 receptions of 30 yards or more himself this season, tied for the 4th most.

Wisconsin had trouble against Penn State’s wideouts in the season opener on deep passes, including a 49-yard touchdown, and it could’ve been much worse as Sean Clifford missed a few throws when the Nittany Lions pass-catchers blew by the Badgers secondary.

Against Notre Dame, Wisconsin gave up a 36-yard touchdown. Against Michigan, it gave up passing scores of 34 and 56 yards. Even against Army, the Black Knights had pass plays of 34 and 36 yards despite throwing the ball just 6 times.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard knows the secondary will be tested in a way it has not been to this point of the season, and he should have a healthy group of cornerbacks and safeties to focus in on Bell. He is going to be a huge factor all game long, and it’s up to them to limit the damage, because he’s not a player who will be shut down no matter who is covering him.

Because Purdue throws so much, it should give the Badgers a few chances at creating turnovers, something they have really struggled with to this point of the season. Wisconsin ranks No. 115 in interceptions per game and No. 122 in takeaways per game. Wisconsin defenders dropped several would-be interceptions this season, especially in the game against Illinois. It didn’t need any game-changing plays in that one, but there have been moments this season where an easy interception would’ve completely swung the momentum in a big game.

While the secondary will have its hands full, the defensive front will need to help out by getting pressure on Aidan O’Connell, and the Badgers have been good at forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the ball quickly in 2021. It took a sack that resulted in a turnover to just about seal the deal against Army, when Leo Chenal forced a fumble that led to a Wisconsin 1-yard touchdown on the next play.

For the second consecutive week, the Badgers will see an offensive scheme they’re unlikely to see the rest of the season, and with the way Wisconsin’s offense has performed through the first half of the year, the defense will need to step up to allow the Badgers to continue to control their own destiny in the B1G West.