The 3-4 defense is rare in college football. Just 12 teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences used the 3-4 as their base defense during the 2012 season, and for good reason. The 3-4 is more complicated than the 4-3 defense, its more common and conservative cousin, and requires players with skillsets that are rarer in high school players. The 3-4 defense is usually better suited for the NFL, where half of the league's teams use it in some way.
But under the right circumstances the 3-4 defense befuddles opposing teams and turns an average college defense into a great one. The 3-4 is more versatile an unpredictable on the football field than the 4-3, and it's is the right defense for the Wisconsin Badgers under new head coach Gary Andersen.
The 3-4's biggest virtue is that it keeps the offense guessing. Defenses usually send four players to try and sack the quarterback, and in the 4-3 it's usually the four defensive linemen. But the 3-4 shoots a hole right through that assumption.
A 3-4 defense has just three defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage with four linebackers roaming around behind them. It's up to the other team to find the "fourth man" and determine which linebacker will rush the quarterback after the ball is snapped. Any of the four linebackers could blitz with the three linemen, and they can confuse the other team by running up to the line of scrimmage and pretending like they will blitz before backing off at the last second. The uncertainty a 3-4 creates can force offenses to make mistakes even if the Badgers end up rushing just four players, and it makes it easier for a defense to hide what it's really going to do.
"I think one big thing for us is we're going to be able to disguise what we do really well, confuse other teams and kind of get them on their heels a little bit," nose tackle Beau Allen said after the Badgers' first day of practice. "I think it's a good scheme, and obviously we'll know more about it as we practice more and install more stuff."
"We've got some cool blitzes tuned up. I think it's sweet."
It makes for a never-ending game of "find the fourth man," and the Badgers think they can use the 3-4 to dictate the flow of the game. Football is a game of deception, and once a team is inside of an opponent's head they're already winning.
"This year, we're making offense react to us," defensive end Ethan Hemer said. "Offensive linemen have to think a lot more about where guys are coming from. It's all about a little more deception."
The Badgers also have the right players to run the 3-4 effectively, especially on the defensive line. A 3-4 defense requires bigger defensive linemen who will draw blocks from two offensive linemen at once, and the Badgers have players who fit that mold. At 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, Allen has the perfect size for a nose guard to draw blocks from two offensive linemen at once.
Hemer and Pat Muldoon will line up on either side of him as defensive ends. At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-4, respectively, Hemer and Muldoon both have long arms that will let them tie up offensive linemen and open up lanes for the linebackers to rush the quarterback. The linemen do the dirty work so the linebackers can get the glory stats like sacks and tackles for loss, but the Badgers have the players to make it work.
There's a reason not many college teams use the 3-4 defense. It's more complicated than the 4-3, and not many teams have the right players to run it effectively. But the Badgers are in a unique position where not only do they have coaches who want to use the 3-4 as their base defense, but they have the right players for it too. As the only Big Ten team running a 3-4 the Badgers will force teams to adapt to them, and that kind of edge is invaluable in college football.
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