Losing two seniors off last year’s line, it was a very real question to ask how this group of young – but talented – players would handle the rigors of the Big Ten. Not only that, Wisconsin had shifted Arthur Goldberg from nose tackle to end and moved Conor Sheehy inside to nose tackle, only keeping Chikwe Obasih the same at the end spot.
Week one was a little bit of a scary sight, as Derrick Henry broke tackles on his way to 147 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-17 Alabama victory over UW. As time wore on and the group gained experience, UW’s front was tremendous … and Henry turned out to be pretty good, too.
Over its final 12 games of the season, UW allowed an average of 83.5 rushing yards. A week after the loss to Bama, UW held Miami (OH) to minus-3 yards rushing. The success of Wisconsin was predicated on stopping the run, as the end results show. UW was 10-0 when holding an opponent without a 100-yard rusher and 0-3 when UW let a tailback break the century mark. But to be fair, UW’s lost to Iowa and Northwestern after allowing a combined 23 points, 20 of which came as an indirect result of turnovers creating a short field.
Against USC, the Badgers limited the Trojans’ stable of running backs to 65 rushing yards. UW held eight of its 13 opponents under 100 rushing yards on the season, second only to Alabama (11) in keeping opponents under 100.
UW didn’t have a single defensive lineman earn first or second team All-Big Ten honors, but that’s not a huge surprise considering this group doesn’t do it for the glory. Obasih (honorable mention all-conference by the media) led the group in tackles (41) and tackles for loss (five) while Sheehy has a line-best two sacks and a forced fumble. Goldberg finished with 17 tackles along with sophomore Alec James, who showed flashes of being a playmaker down the road. True freshman nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (seven tackles) was a nice surprise and will fortify the middle of the line for the next three years.
While the stats don’t jump off the page, the ones for the linebackers do, which is a big assist to the unit up front. If it wasn’t for them chewing up the double teams and creating alleys for the backers, UW’s run numbers wouldn’t be what they were.
And with all key contributors on the line returning in 2016, this group is only going to get better, which might cause the tackles for loss and sacks to grow even higher.
Much like the offensive line, this group could least afford injuries going into fall camp and (surprise, surprise), the injuries came to starters T.J. Edwards and Leon Jacobs. But unlike the offensive line, who never could get over the injury bug, UW was able to build solid depth that was a huge plus in 2015.
While Jacobs’ season was done after four games because of a foot injury, Edwards was a massive success, leading the team with 84 tackles to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and two quarterback hurries – production that earned him a spot on Scout.com’s Freshman All-American first team. Edwards might go down as one of the greatest recruiting flips in recent UW memory, as he is a natural playmaker.
The injury to Jacobs opened the door for true freshman Chris Orr to step in and thrive, playing so well early in the nonconference season that he actually beat out a healthy Jacobs for the starting job. Coming from a power high school program in De Soto, TX, Orr’s instincts and natural abilities were evident throughout the early parts of the season.
When Jacobs was ejected for targeting early in the 28-3 win over Troy Sept.19, Orr stepped in to register a game-high 14 tackles (also a career-high) and have 11 of them come from the solo variety. He proved all year to be confident stuffing the run and making big plays in short-yardage situations.
And when Orr went down with a leg infection before the Rutgers game Oct.31 (Orr returned for the final two games of the season and finished with 46 tackles), defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and staff made the decision to move outside linebacker Jack Cichy to inside linebacker. It turned out to be one of the amazing stories of the season.
Cichy was already having a memorable season considering the redshirt sophomore from Somerset, WI, earned a scholarship over the summer. After playing four games in 2013 and redshirting in 2014, Cichy had played in all eight games of the season, mostly on special teams, and had registered 19 tackles.
Switched to position the Monday before the game, Cichy had eight tackles in the 48-10 victory over the Scarlet Knight, helping hold quarterback Chris Laviano to 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) passing and 31 yards, and a 32.9 passer rating; Laviano entered the game leading the Big Ten with a passing completion percentage of 67.2 and third with an efficiency mark of 148.9.
Holding Rutgers to a season-low 165 yards, Wisconsin forced Rutgers into eight three-and-outs in the game and gave up just two first downs in the second half.
“He did everything you could ask for in the middle,” said senior OLB Joe Schobert of Cichy. “He made a lot of tackles, made a lot of plays. Obviously if you have a guy out there making plays, he’s doing his job well. I think the biggest thing you notice is them not making big long runs up the middle. Even if he’s not making tackles, he’s in the right spot.”
The success continued with 10 tackles against Maryland and a career-high 11 against Northwestern but hit a down note when he was ejected for targeting in the second half of the win over Minnesota. Instead of moping around in the San Diego locker room, Cichy was named Holiday Bowl Defensive MVP after finishing with a team-high nine tackles, three sacks and helped force a fourth-quarter interception. Did I mention the three sacks came on consecutive plays and set a new Badgers’ bowl game record?
Thanks to the quarterbacks of the defense, UW ranked No. 2 in the FBS in scoring defense at 13.7 points per game, third in total defense (268.5), fourth in rushing defense (95.4) and seventh in pass defense (173.2) this season.
What more can be said about Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert that hasn’t already been said dozens of times? The two were truly one of the best one-two punches at OLB in the country this past season and were a nightmare to account for, especially when it came to third downs.
After holding USC to a 5-for-14 mark on third downs in the Holiday Bowl, UW held opponents to 31.2 percent on the “money down” - matching the 2004 team for the fifth-best mark in school history. UW also allowed opponents to reach the red zone just 25 times in 13 games, ranking the Badgers in a tied with Alabama for No. 1 nationally in terms of fewest opponent red-zone chances. A lot of that has to do with the pressure coming off the edges.
Schobert’s 79 tackles were second on the team but his 19.5 tackles for loss ranked (1.5 per game) was tied for 10th nationally. His 9.5 sacks tied for fifth nationally among linebackers and he was well deserving of the Big Ten’s linebacker of the year award.
The success of Schobert led teams to scheme away from him, opening up opportunities for the inside linebackers and, especially, Biegel to make plays. While he flashed brilliance (two sacks against Rutgers, 11 tackles against Northwestern), Biegel’s biggest trait was consistency, having at least four tackles in 10 games and one tackle for loss in eight. Biegel averaged 5.1 tackles and 1.1 tackles for loss per game and will only get better next season.
While starting slow early in the season after converting from tight end in fall camp, T.J. Watt ended the season with a flourish. Against Minnesota he tipped the pass that led to Schobert’s interception and rushed quarterback Mitch Leidner that led to another one. Against USC, Watt added a half tackle for loss. With a full spring coming up, Watt will be even better by fall camp
Two very different cornerbacks in terms of style delivered very solid results for Wisconsin. Sojourn Shelton took to secondary coach Daronte Jones’ coaching by regaining the swagger to his game from his freshman year and drastically cut down the pass interference penalties. As a result he delivered better, smarter coverage, leading to seven pass breakups and an interception in the bowl game – the first by a UW cornerback since November 2013.
Darius Hillary was equally sound with 44 tackles, six pass breakups and recovered two fumbles in the win over Minnesota. Hillary and Shelton were a big part of UW limiting opponents to only 20 pass plays over 25 yards in 13 games, and held a USC team that averaged 34.9 points and 449.6 total yards per game to 21 points and 286 yards.
Derrick Tindal continues to make strides as a young sophomore cornerback, finishing with 32 tackles – 15 combining coming against Miami (OH) and Troy - and five pass breakups. With Hillary graduating, it will be up to Tindal to step into a shutdown starting role, and Natrell Jamerson (14 tackles) to step up into the nickel. Jamerson got some spot work at the role when Tindal was out.
This grade only gets knocked down slightly because of the lack of interceptions.
A team leader and a really good football player, Michael Caputo’s ability to line up near the line of scrimmage for run coverage or drop back in pass coverage was a huge weapon at Wisconsin’s disposal. Pegged for a monster season in August, Caputo’s tackle numbers were down (106 to 65) but delivered with career-highs in pass breakups (eight) and interceptions (two). He finished with a flurry, too, registering seven tackles (five solo) and two breakups in the bowl game. I would have loved to see UW’s defense with Caputo on the field for the entire game against Alabama instead of just three plays.
After his failed reign at quarterback in 2014, Tanner McEvoy found new life at safety with a season that could give him a N.F.L. opportunity. His sixth interceptions were the most by a UW player since 2007, put him in a tie for seventh nationally and he recorded two interceptions against both Maryland and Minnesota.
UW didn’t allow an opponent to score on its game-opening drive this season. With the Badgers having two solid seniors on the back end who played virtually every down, that’s not a surprise.