Last Saturday's opener marked the first contact game Gilbert played in 49 weeks, a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when he ran out of the tunnel as a starter. But as he started to rush the quarterback again, Gilbert jumped into the deep end of the pool instead of slowing wading into the water.
"I was impatient with myself," said Gilbert. "It's good to get a game under my belt, but I realize that the jump from the first game to the second game is huge."
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema believes Gilbert is one of the players that will give the Badgers a boost in the pass rush game, starting as early as this afternoon when No.13 Wisconsin takes on Oregon State here at Reser Stadium.
Bielema told the media earlier this week that he was working in his office Sunday following Wisconsin's 26-21 opening week victory; a game that saw the Badgers develop little to no pressure on Northern Iowa redshirt freshman quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen.
Wisconsin managed only one sack and four tackles for loss in its victory, but all but one tackle for loss came from the defensive line. The Badgers were consistently close with five quarterback hurries, including Gilbert (who finished with one assisted tackle and one QB hurry), but it's not good enough for a program that prides itself on ‘finishing.'
Known for having an open container of gumballs on his desk that serve as a means to draw players into his office, Bielema asked Gilbert what he thought about the season opener when the junior came in for a piece of candy. According to Bielema, Gilbert replied, "I think I'm about ready to get a lot better in a hurry."
"That's him," Bielema said. "He's very coachable. Very athletic. He obviously looks the right way. So hopefully he'll be one of those guys, like I was making reference earlier from game one to game two makes a big jump."
Gilbert recorded a total of three sacks and 10 tackles in UW's first four games last season before suffering a season-ending broken foot before the conference opener. Even though he admitted he ‘surprised himself' with how well he held up during UW's fall training camp, Gilbert knows there's a difference between practice speed and game speed.
"I definitely feel my confidence returning, and it helps to go against one of the best offensive lines in the country," said Gilbert. "If I could do things against Ricky Wagner, I can do them against anybody. It's about building confidence in your pass rush technique each week, because you don't know what the team is going to do when you first go in there.
"My knowledge is vastly expanded of what I went into the UNLV game last year. I am so many different ways to change it up than I did last year. I feel I am light years ahead of where I was last year."
But because of the long layoff and time spent on the sidelines, Gilbert's technique wasn't balanced, as he tried to run over Northern Iowa's tackles on nearly every play, trying to rely on strength rather than the skills he has learned over his four years on campus. It was also a challenge to get into a rhythm, as the Panthers only ran 15 plays in the first half.
"I know (defensive line) coach (Charlie) Partridge had a nice conversation with him about getting on the edges of guys more," Bielema said. "He was trying to take on too much flush right down the middle."
Without Gilbert's aggressiveness – considered UW's best pass rusher - for the final 10 games of the season, the production of the defensive sagged. The Badgers ranked 70th in the nation in sacks per game, averaging just 1.79 during the season, and opponent's completion percentage, as quarterbacks completed 60.8 percent of their passes.
The Badgers also ranked 60th in the nation and sixth in the Big Ten by allowing 152.64 rushing yards per game (4.29 yards per carry). Looking at his four-game snapshot from last season, Gilbert knows that being at full heath will make those low numbers a memory.
"To be completely honest, the only thing that's going to change is the amount of sacks I am satisfied with," said Gilbert. "Honestly, last year, I thought that if I could go in and get two sacks a game that it would be good. I know now with my abilities and if I go 100 percent, I could get as many sacks that is presented to me that day."
Gilbert admitted that the oblique injury he suffered during a fall camp scrimmage ‘hurts every day' but says he cures it with a couple of pills of ibuprofen. After what he's gone through to get back to playing shape, Gilbert isn't going to let a little irritation step between him and an opposing quarterback.
"I focus and excitement is so much on this game and being in my element again," said Gilbert. "I am willing to ignore all my bumps and bruises."
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