Last season, outside linebacker Joe Schobert started 2015 off right with three consecutive tackles - two for loss - in overtime that helped seal Wisconsin’s 34-31 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
The former walk-on’s last three plays from scrimmage were an impressive feat and a sign of things to come. This season Schobert emerged to lead the Badgers in sacks and tackles for loss on way to All-American honors and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award.
If Schobert’s stretch of three plays were impressive, how would you describe redshirt sophomore Jack Cichy’s run of three consecutive sacks and a rabid second half on Wednesday night, and the possible foreshadowing coming in the seasons to come?
Despite being held out of the first half due to the targeting penalty assessed against him during Wisconsin’s win against the Minnesota on Nov. 29, Cichy lead the team in sacks and tackles on way to defensive MVP honors in Wisconsin’s 23-21 win over USC in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium in the Holiday Bowl.
“I think being behind Vince (Biegel), Joe, and even my freshman year, (Ethan Armstrong) and Chris Borland, I think it's only helped me,” said Cichy. “So you can look at like, I'm not playing (the first half), and this sucks, or you can kind of look at it as an opportunity to grow. I think I've taken the opportunity, I've grown a lot, and I've got a long way to go, but, yeah, I guess it feels real.”
Cichy’s contributions to the Badgers defense has been primarily during the final few games, at least on the stat sheet. Backing up outside linebackers in Schobert and redshirt junior Vince Biegel, the former walk-on slid inside when true freshman Chris Orr was sidelined for the better part of November with a leg injury. He saved his best game of the season against the Trojans.
“I mean, I was out the first half. When I came in the second half, I just wanted to ease in and not do anything stupid and just let the game come to me,” Cichy said.
His back-to-back-to-back sacks couldn’t have come at a better time for Wisconsin. After its offense went three-and-out for the first time in the game, momentum started to swing in USC’s favor with the ball at midfield and UW clinging to a 20-14 lead.
The first sack came when Cichy beat redshirt junior tight end Taylor McNamara, ripping down Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler. The very next play, the Somerset, Wis., native blitzed untouched by a USC offensive lineman, then dragged and suplexed the touted signal caller to the ground.
He wasn’t done yet.
Cichy bullrushed running back Ronald Jones III on 3rd-and-31, wiping out the true freshman and proceeding to chase down Kessler for his third consecutive sack in what may be one of the finest individual defensive sequences seen in modern Wisconsin history. A drive that started at midfield, ended at USC’s 29-yard line, forcing the Trojans to punt in a 4th-and-38 situation and changing the field position.
“I was on a blitz each time, but I kind of came right open,” Cichy said. “In the last one, I got some resistance, but I didn’t think I’d come free each time. I’d think they’d pick it up.”
Added head coach Paul Chryst: “it was pretty unique, just for the circumstances. I thought it was big and it tilted the field. Cich played a heck of a game … It was big. I thought we had a lot of guys contribute but I don't think I have seen (three sacks in a row).”
The linebacker aside from tackling the opposing quarterback, flew around the field with fresh energy in the third and fourth quarters. He led the team with nine tackles, but also came through on huge plays in the fourth quarter.
With USC driving at its own 36 on a 1st-and-10, Cichy pressured Kessler, getting to him right as he released the ball. The errant pass was intercepted by junior cornerback Sojourn Shelton. Along with drawing a personal foul penalty on USC outside linebacker Don Hill during Wisconsin’s last punt, which buried the Trojans back on their own 10-yard line to start their final drive, Cichy’s impact thwart a Trojans victory.
“My d-line helped a ton, and Coach Aranda’s playcalling kind of didn’t really ease me into it -- just kind of threw me in, which was fine. It worked out well,” Cichy said with a smile. “It was a great team win.”