Feeling Pressure To Step Up the Pressure

Louis Nzegwu, along with sophomore David Gilbert, are trying to replace the production Chris Borland brought when rushing the passer.

MADISON — In the first four games of the season, the Wisconsin football team sacked opposing quarterbacks eight times, piled up eight other quarterbacks hits and held the opponents passing attack to 170 yards a game. Replacing two starters, including the superb O'Brien Schofield, all of these numbers were more than sufficient for the UW defense in the first four wins.

Against Michigan State last weekend, however, they were not.

Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins dropped back 33 times. He was sacked twice, hit three other times and unofficially (by Badger Nation's count) pressured nine times total of the 33 drop backs.

Which means on 24 drop-backs, Cousins had time to scan the field and make decisions on his own accord. The result was 20-for-29 passing, three touchdowns and 269 yards passing — all highs given up by the defense this season.

The lack of pressure on the passer has put more pressure on the defensive line to step it up against Minnesota this week.

"I definitely feel like we need more production," said rush end David Gilbert. "But at the same time we can't focus on last weekend how we didn't get the pressure we have to focus on this week and getting pressure."

Going into the season, J.J. Watt and Chris Borland were being counted on to wreak havoc in the backfield and give offensive tackles fits. Watt has been as strong as advertised — despite officially having just one sack — leading the team in tackles for a loss, quarterback hits and pass breaks ups.

The loss of Borland for the season, however, has left a gap on the other side of the pass rush.

It seemed at times last Saturday, if Watt wasn't making a play, then Cousins was given the time to do so.

Part of the problem with replacing the injured Borland is in those words itself — how do you replace such a dynamic force?

"Can we replace Chris Borland? I think it is impossible to replace a kid like Chris Borland," UW defensive line coach Charles Partridge said. "Chris Borland brings special things."

Still, the Badgers must find a way for the sum of the parts to equal Borland's former production.

"Our system has always been next man in," Gilbert said, citing the Badgers oft told mantra. "If Louis were to get hurt, or J.J. were to get hurt you still have to go next man in. It has definitely affected us but we are not dwelling on it. We have to move forward and win for him."

The most likely candidates right now remain starting defensive end Louis Nzegwu and 3-3-5 (Badger) package rush end Gilbert.

Both have flashed, though neither has consistently been a force off the edge. Through the first four games, Nzegwu recorded two sacks and four tackles for a loss, and after five games he trails tackles leader Watt by just two takedowns.

Against MSU though, Nzegwu was often invisible.

"During the course of the year it can definitely get better," Nzegwu said. "I need to improve myself, I am not happy with my pressures right now. I expect more from myself."

Considering the standard Watt, Schofield and Borland set last season, Partridge's opinion was much more mellow of Nzegwu's first season starting.

"What I want them to do first and foremost is be great fundamentally," Partridge said. "Do their job and make plays through their job. I don't want Louis to ever feel like he has to press to up his stats. As long as he is doing his job to help us win games, he is doing a solid job. I am happy the way he is producing as a first year starter."

With Gilbert weighing in at just 240 lbs — fairly light for a defensive end — the coaching staff has positioned him to make his mark as the hybrid rush end/linebacker in UW's Badger package.

Like Nzegwu, Gilbert has flashed pass rushing ability in his limited snaps. He has picked up 1.5 sacks on the year, combining to take down Cousins with defensive tackle Patrick Butrym last Saturday for a half sack, and fits the physical mold well of a pass rusher.

On the field for around 20-25 snaps a game, Partridge said for the time being, Gilbert's playing time will remain in that range.

"He is doing some nice things," Partridge said of Gilbert. "When he has gotten his chance to get in there, he is getting to the quarterback. So he is getting better."

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