MADISON - Needing to retool the entire front seven during the offseason, Wisconsin knew it would have two senior middle linebackers – Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter – to make the calls and be the leaders of the defense, but didn’t exactly know how good the youth was behind them.
Once UW lost both seniors, it got its answer, which was overwhelmingly positive.
Sophomore Leon Jacobs, making his first career start in place of Trotter, made a career-high 12 tackles and fifth-year senior walk-on Ben Ruechel recorded his first career sack in place of Landisch during Wisconsin’s 38-28 victory over Illinois Saturday.
“Coming into the season, that was a question mark as far as the depth at inside linebacker,” said Landisch. “The way they played today, they’re really stepping up and showing themselves they can play, too. The preparation, it’s not easy being a backup preparing because you never know when you’re going to play. The way they stepped up was really good to see.”
With Trotter on the sidelines after suffering a groin injury in last weekend’s loss at Northwestern, Jacobs, who has bounced around between a number of different defense positions, was picked ahead of senior Michael Trotter and found his footing after halftime, registering nine tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in the second half.
During Illinois’ opening drive of the second half, Jacobs held quarterback Reilly O’Toole to only a two-yard gain and then sacked him for a nine-yard loss on the next play.
“Leon helps us with our athleticism on the defensive side of the ball,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen. “It’s good to see him make some plays.”
Recruiting by Wisconsin shortly after Andersen was hired in 2012, Jacobs came to the program with a ton of athleticism but limited on experience, having played only one year of organized football. Originally in the plans to play as a true freshmen on defense, Jacobs played on all 13 games on special team to gain experience.
“The biggest thing for me was traveling and seeing how players like Chris Borland, Ethan Armstrong and Conor O’Neill, how they prepared every game, game in and game out,” said Jacobs. “For me as a freshmen and my second year playing football last year, that’s meant a lot. It really benefited me.”
Ruechel’s contributions came at a moment’s notice after Landisch’s left elbow hyper-extended on a tackle attempt. In the locker room to get an x-ray, Ruechel came on a blitz on third-and-6, overpowered Illinois center Joe Spencer and sacked O’Toole for an 8-yard loss.
“A walk-on kid from Wisconsin, not a lot of people know him, but he deserves a lot of credit for how he prepares,” Landisch, who returned later with a brace, said of Ruechel. “That’s a testament to the way those inside linebackers prepare.”
In addition to the two reserves, Andersen said sophomore outside linebacker Vince Biegel played his best game of the season. Finishing with six tackles and a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss, the numbers back that up.
“The competitiveness in that kid to be a great player; he is unbelievably driven, and we need him to be,” said Andersen. “He needs to be a special player in the Big Ten. That’s why he came to Wisconsin. That’s why he stayed at home to play, to be a special player at the University of Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin ended up with a season-high six sacks, all of which were delivered by different players. The Badgers now have 19 sacks through six games. UW totaled 26 sacks in 13 games a season ago.
“It was great to see the defense put themselves in position that way and rush the passers physically,” said Andersen. “That’s the most we’ve gotten yet this year and we left two of three of them out there on the field.”
Not So Special
Illinois’ 28 points were a season-high in Big Ten play, and they have the Wisconsin punt team to thank for it. Of Illinois’ four touchdown drives, three started on the Badgers’ side of the field, resulting in the Illini’s offense only needed to drive 31, 42 and 29 yards for touchdowns.
Two of those drives started after 35-yard punts by junior Drew Meyer and the latter happened after a line-drive Meyer kick was returned 30 yards by V’Angelo Bentley.
“When you have the ability to flip the field a couple times a game, it makes a big time difference,” said Andersen. “That is an area of concern and there’s a lot of them. Drew will continue to work on it and we’ll continue to try to help him.”
In the two quarters were Illinois scored its points, the Illini’s average starting field position was the 47- and the 42-yard line. In the two middle quarters when the Wisconsin defense pitched shutouts, Illinois started at its own 21 and 22.
Denlinger Makes a Dent
In an effort to give senior right guard Kyle Costigan a break in certain situations, mostly on passing downs, offensive line coach T.J. Woods rotated in sophomore backup Trent Denlinger. According to Andersen, Costigan’s nagging injuries have allowed the in-state walk-on to start contributing, although he doesn’t foresee it to be a weekly rotation.
“Trent is in a position to be able to play and Kyle is continually battling,” said Andersen. “You can see he's a little bit locked up on his one side with his arm, and it's a preventive situation, but it doesn't allow him to be in the best position to be able to pass block just because of the nature of he's kind of locked up and it's not real easy. It gives Trent an opportunity to be able to play in certain situations.”
Whether it was Costigan or Denlinger on the field, Wisconsin didn’t give up any sacks against an Illini defense averaging two sacks per game (11th in the Big Ten).
Extra Points: Peniel Jean made his first career start in the place of Lubern Figaro (ankle) and made his first career interception in the fourth quarter … The Badgers are now 10-1 at home under head coach Gary Andersen … UW rushed for at least 400 yards for the second time this season and the third time in 19 games under Andersen. UW has accumulated 400 rushing in 19 games all time. Saturday also marked the sixth time the Badgers have ran for at least 300 yards in Andersen’s tenure … Wisconsin has now scored at least 24 points in 11 consecutive home games dating back to the 2013 home opener. That is the second-longest streak in UW history, trailing on 13 straight games with 24+ points spanning 2010-12.