Wisconsin appeared sunk after its 28-24 loss to LSU in the season opener when senior defensive end Konrad Zagzebski left on a cart and senior nose tackle Warren Herring appeared to seriously hurt his knee. The defensive line was young to begin with, but taking out the only two players with any prior experience looked to be a death sentence.
Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as we all thought.
Wisconsin’s young defensive line has played beyond expectations through six games, thanks in large part to redshirt freshman Chikwe Obasih. The scout team defensive player of the year last year, Obasih leads the defensive line with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss and two sacks on the season. His instincts have been solid and his pass rushing ability gives UW a young weapon off the end, as he showed against Illinois with 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack.
Zagzebski’s injury wasn’t as serious as originally thought and the senior has been a vital part to the line. With Herring out, Zagzebski has rotated at nose tackle with Arthur Goldberg, the third-string nose tackle a year ago who was suddenly thrust into major minutes. When Zagzebski is at nose, UW will either bring down an outside linebacker or insert Alec James into the lineup; another redshirt freshman who has shown to have good instincts and a high ceiling.
Entering last weekend fifth in the Big Ten and 22nd nationally against the run, Wisconsin held Illinois to 65 yards on 24 carries through the first three quarters before Aaron Bailey entered the game and got loose, running for a team-high 75 yards in the fourth-quarter alone, an unfortunate ending to what was a solid day.
Herring is hopeful to return next weekend when Wisconsin hosts Maryland, giving a big boost to a group that has played well without its leader.
Even without one of the best linebackers in school history (Chris Borland), Wisconsin really hasn’t missed a beat with Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter starting on the inside and Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert on the outside.
Landisch is averaging over five tackles and a tackle for loss a game, showing a lot of the same instincts that carried Borland throughout his career. Trotter work against the run has been a big boost to Wisconsin and a big absence over the last two games, as Northwestern ran for 203 yards with Trotter only playing two series.
With Trotter out, sophomore Leon Jacobs showed he has the potential to be an every-down player for Wisconsin next season, finishing with a career highs in tackles (12), tackles for loss (two) and sacks (1.5).
“Leon is a tremendous athlete,” said UW coach Gary Andersen. “It was great to see him get sacks. It was great to see the defense put themselves in position that way and rush the passer physically.”
After playing in situational downs last season, Biegel has developed into one of the best outside linebackers in the conference. Following his six tackle performance (which included a game-high 2.5 tackles for loss), Biegel is emerging as Wisconsin’s best pass rusher from the back eight.
“I think I came out there and made some big plays for us, has some TFLs and had some hurries,” said Biegel. “At the end of the day, I’m just trying to help this defense win some ball games.”
Last season, UW had 64 tackles for loss, 26 sacks and 31 quarterback hurries in 13 games. After registering 11 tackles for loss, six sacks and two quarterback hurries, Wisconsin has notched 41 TFLs, 19 sacks and 18 hurries, inflated numbers that to UW’s aggression on defense.
It’s one of the reasons why Wisconsin is sixth nationally total defense (286.0 ypg), 10th in passing defense (169.2 ypg), and 12th in scoring defense (17.7 ppg).
It’s not usually good when a safety leads a team in tackles, but junior Michael Caputo is not your average safety in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. Outstanding against the run and above average against the pass, Caputo has done a little bit of everything for the Badgers this season with 45 tackles.
Thanks to Lubern Figaro, the other safety has also been productive. A question mark heading into fall camp, the true freshman has improved every week since getting pulled late in the season opener. He’s been a playmaker, registering game-changing turnovers in back-to-back weeks against Bowling Green and South Florida.
Even when Figaro was out with an ankle injury last week, senior Peniel Jean – playing safety this season after being moved from cornerback – picked up the slack by recording five tackles and registering his first career interception to seal the game.
While the safeties have been good, the cornerbacks have been up and down, and sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton admitted he can play better. After tying for the team lead in interceptions a year ago, Shelton has yet to register a pick and is being successfully targeted in coverage.
The same goes for cornerback Darius Hillary, but the junior has played in better coverage overall, as Shelton has struggled at points defending receivers. Against Illinois, Shelton was flagged for three pass interference penalties varying between contact with a receiver or not turning around to play the football.
“It’s probably not going the way I want it to go, but that’s fine with me because we have a whole half of a season left,” said Shelton of his first half. “I’ll have some opportunities to make plays. I just have to continue to play fast and play hard. That’s how I approach it.”
After allowing only 47 plays over 10 yards through five games, sixth lowest in FBS, Wisconsin allowed 11 such plays against the Illini, the majority of which came in the final quarter when Illinois ran the triple option.
“We worked everything they ran, just a couple of mental errors,” said Shelton. “I think that’s what caused them to gash us for those yards when it came to the quarterback. There’s always room for improvement. We’re a team that always wants to get better. We’re trying to be the best defense we can be.”
The cornerbacks have played well, but there’s another level they need to go to for Wisconsin to play the kind of defense it wants to play.
After dealing with kicking problems for the better part of two seasons, Wisconsin has found a confident kicker in Rafael Gaglianone. There have been a few hiccups through the first half, but Gaglianone has been fairly consistent, going 6-for-9 on his field goal attempts, making kicks from a variety of distances and missing from 33, 47 and 50. He’s a got a power leg and a lot of confidence.
Tag teaming with Gaglianone, Andrew Endicott has already registered 10 touchbacks on the season, surpassing his total from last year. As a result, the kickoff team has performed well, limiting opponents to 19.5 yards per return on 29 kicks. On the flip side, Wisconsin has averaged 21.4 yards per return, as senior Kenzel Doe has shown to be a capable return man.
The punting, however, has become a marginal concern for Wisconsin, Junior Drew Meyer, in his third season at the position, is averaging 40 yards per punt and struggled against Illinois. Needing to flip the field position after being pinned deep in his territory, Meyer was only able to register a pair of 35 yards punts and a line-drive kick that was returned for 30 yards. That resulted in Illinois getting the ball on the UW 31, 42 and 29 and scoring on all three of the drives.
Meyer acknowledged the problem – either kicking long punts with no hang time or shorter punts with good hang time – and has spent the bye week tinkering with his delivering. It hasn’t cost UW in a game yet, but the Badgers need to be able to flip field position.