A group of no-name linemen have certainly washed the bad taste out of their mouths from the season opener. Humbled by Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who ran for 147 yards against UW’s front, Wisconsin responded the next week by holding Miami University to minus-3 yards and, proving it wasn’t a fluke, held Hawaii to 15 rushing yards a week ago. UW has surrendered a total of 93 yards over the last three games and rank 11th nationally against the run.
“They are gaining different experience by playing different types of offensive lines,” said senior safety Michael Caputo. “That’s more under their belt. They are gaining more experience in the pass rush. The best coverage in the back end is the pass rush. The teams we have been playing have been real good, so that’s just more under their belt to move forward and succeed.”
It’s not a flashy group by any means but they are doing their part. Chikwe Obasih looks more instinctive than he was a year ago (leading the group with 11 tackles), Conor Sheehy rebounded from a poor opener to be more confident and stout in the middle taking on double teams (1.5 sacks is third on the team and best on the line) and Arthur Goldberg has contributed without playing his best yet.
Alabama averaged 6.4 yards per carry on Sept. 5, but the Badgers’ subsequent three opponents combined to average 1.2 yards per rushing attempt. That’s a lot of confidence to be bringing into conference play.
Appearing to have the tools to become the best one-two punch at outside linebacker in the country, Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel have lived up to the hype through four games. Developing as one of the best tandems in the country, Schobert (9.5) and Biegel (5.5) have combined for 15.0 tackles for loss this season, the most of any pair of linebacker teammates in the nation. Schobert (6.0) and Biegel (2.5) also are the nation’s leading linebacker tandem in terms of sacks with 8.5.
“We just have to be ready every week to take on everybody’s best shot in Big Ten,” said Schobert. “Week in, week out, anybody can knock you off. The level of physicality definitely steps up, likely more power run teams that we’ve seen in this nonconference schedule. We just have to be ready for that. We have taken some good steps the last couple weeks in the right direction.”
As good as Wisconsin’s outside linebackers have been, the Badgers’ inside linebackers have been just as good … although the duo wasn’t the one we were expecting at the start of the season. Redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards (22 tackles, 1.5 for loss, two breakups) has flashed and given a consistent effort, but true freshman Chris Orr has been a surprise.
Stepping in after Leon Jacobs was ejected for a targeting foul in the second quarter vs. Troy, Orr led all players with his career-high 14 tackles, including 11 solo stops. He recorded his first career tackle for loss and logged a key pass breakup on third down. Getting the start over Jacobs, who is again battling a right foot issue, Orr is second on the team with 24 stops and has been huge in short yardage situations.
While we haven’t seen a lot of the depth thus far, mainly because of how well the unit is playing together, outside linebackers Jack Cichy and Jesse Hayes were being worked in more during the early portion of the schedule to a) give Biegel and Schobert a rest and b) to gain experience. It was evident against Hawaii that it’s working for Cichy, who registered a pass breakup and one of his five tackles for no gain when the Warriors were threatening inside UW’s 10.
The defense is still having some glitches with some communications errors and missing assignments but the Badgers keeping UW out of the end zone for three straight weeks – twice completely off the scoreboard – is a huge thing for the defense.
Having three three-year starters and three seniors among your starting four secondary players is a luxury few teams have. Wisconsin is one of them and the Badgers haven’t wasted it, even getting some nice production from its reserves.
Each player has brought something different to the table: Caputo leads the team with four pass breakups, reserve safety Leo Musso has a team-best two picks and starting nickel corner Derrick Tindal leads the unit with 18 tackles and has played very confident. Two-way starter Tanner McEvoy has also been solid on the back end and finished with a career-high six tackles against the Warriors.
Wisconsin’s corners still don’t have an interception but Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton haven’t been tested much over the last three games. After struggling in the opener, UW has held three straight QBs until 200 passing yards, impressive considering Troy’s flourishes on big plays and quick strikes and Hawaii ran different looks that UW hasn’t seen this season.
“That’s not the last time we’re going to see that,” Caputo said of Hawaii, which finished 16-for-34 for 240 yards in the air. “It’s good because in the back end we gained a lot of experience … with different route combinations and different guys getting subbed in.”
There are a lot of things to be excited about with this group thus far.
It’s evident that the addition of Chris Haering as a pure special teams coach was a good move for Wisconsin. The Badgers are allowing an average of just 16.0 yards per kickoff return – three yards shorter than last season. That ranks sixth nationally and No. 2 in the Big Ten (Michigan, 15.7) among teams that have faced at least 10 opponent kickoff returns. UW is also allowing just 3.38 yards per punt return (8.81 yards a season ago), which is the second-best mark in the Big Ten (minimum five opponent returns).
Wisconsin joins Akron as the only teams in the country allowing fewer than 3.5 yards per punt return (minimum five returns defended) and 16.5 yards per kick return (minimum 10 returns defended) this season. Opponents’ average starting field position against Wisconsin after a kickoff is their own 20.5 yard line, the best mark of any FBS team. Last year, UW opponents’ average starting field position was the 25.1 yard line.
Former UW kicker Taylor Mehlhaff has also made an impact, which has been backed up by the performances of his kickers. Drew Meyer is consistently punting the ball as good as he did as a redshirt freshman. Not only is he averaging 40.7 yards per punt, Meyer has put nine of his 20 punts inside the 20 and only two into the end zone. Kicker Andrew Endicott has also done a nice job, averaging over 62 yards on his kickoffs in three of UW’s four games.
There are still some issues, however. Endicott only registers a touchback 25 percent of the time (6 of 24), punt returner Alex Erickson has muffed two punts (UW recovered both) and hasn’t looked real comfortable and Rafael Gaglianone is only 57.1 percent on the season, as his accuracy – not his leg strength – has betrayed him.
Other than that, it’s hard to complain about what this group has done to this point.