MADISON – In terms of his football age, Ryan Connelly has got a lot of games ahead of him. In terms of his position, he is one of the veterans, especially when one hears what his nickname is.
“We call him ‘the uncle’ because he’s got a receding hairline already,” junior outside backer T.J. Watt joked.
Fortunately for Wisconsin, Connelly is capable of handling the job, which he will likely need to do in the short term.
With the announcement that sophomore Chris Orr will miss the remainder of the season with a right knee (ACL) injury, and sophomore T.J. Edwards still listed as questionable as he tries to come back from a broken left foot, Connelly will start at inside linebacker next to junior Jack Cichy for Saturday’s home opener against Akron (2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network).
“He’s a hard worker at the end of the day,” Watt said of Connelly. “He’s a great special teams guy, too. I’m really happy for him.”
After Orr went down on the first defensive play, Connelly – a former walk-on given a scholarship prior to last season - stepped in and was credited with a tackle on LSU junior tailback Leonard Fournette, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy favorite. He ended the day with six more tackles, including a number of solo stops on Fournette.
In reality Connelly was one of many Wisconsin player stepping in for a veteran, as Watt delivered seven tackles in his first start replacing Joe Schobert; Alec James delivered three tackles and one sack after moving up into Arthur Goldberg’s spot; and junior cornerback Derrick Tindal and sophomore safety D'Cota Dixon each registered interceptions in their new starting spots vacated by Darius Hillary and Tanner McEvoy, respectively.
“I do think that we’re talented and can do a lot of really special things as a unit,” Watt said. “I think we have a lot of confidence in the secondary, even though a lot of people like to think they’re young and inexperienced. That lets the front seven go to work and just be really confident in what we’re doing, knowing they can cover us in the back end.”
Wisconsin (1-0) led the nation in scoring defense a year ago and sit in a six-way tie for 44th after week one. Of those teams ahead of Wisconsin, however, only six played another power-five conference and only one played a ranked team (No.1 Alabama pummeled No.20 USC, 52-6).
According to Cichy, Wisconsin did it week one with a different defense and personnel than a year ago, not to mention a group with different tendencies and philosophies. One example was how the unit defeated blockers.
Under Dave Aranda’s scheme, Cichy said a lot of times players would have to take on blocks one-on-one with their gap assignments and allow another player to make the tackle. That’s been slightly modified under Justin Wilcox.
“He kind of gives us free reign to trust in our technique and defeat guys,” Cichy said. “You see that with Alec James getting tackles in the backfield, T.J. Watt and Vince being able to destroy blocks and make TFLs. That’s one thing I think this defense will do very well.”
The early results speak for themselves. Of the 11 LSU drives that started in its own territory, only three advanced on to Wisconsin’s side of the field. The results were two punts and the game-clinching interception.
“It’s gives (the offense) a lot of confidence, especially when you look at Vince B coming off the edge, T.J. Watt coming off the edge, those guys are just high motor athletes,” tailback Corey Clement said. “Cichy coming up the middle. It sucks that we lost Chris Orr, but you got other guys coming up behind him. We’ve still got T.J. Edwards coming back from injury. Those guys are a really special, talented group. The sky is the limit for those guys.”
LSU head coach Les Miles announced Monday that senior offensive lineman Josh Boutte would be suspended for the Tigers’ season opener against Jacksonville State after he was ejected for a late hit on Dixon in the closing minute.
The SEC office announced it accepted LSU's suspension of Boutte and will have no further penalty.
While Miles said Boutte’s hit wasn’t intentional, he said that it “does not belong in the game." Boutte called Dixon on Monday morning to apologize for the hit.
The 203-pound Dixon was leveled after the 340-pound senior launched a forearm and shoulder into his facemask. Dixon had just sealed the game with an interception and was running up field with his arm raised when the hit took place.
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said he saw the play and praised his players on the field on how they responded to it.
“I thought that was big time,” Chryst said. “Appreciative of that. Usually that’s something, it’s so spontaneous and how two kids react, really proud of how our players reacted to it.”
Offensive Line Holds Up
From their preparedness and playing physical in the trenches, Wisconsin’s offensive line – playing as a five-man unit for the first time – cleared the way for 134 rushing yards and gave up only one sack.
“They played awesome,” Clement said. “They played down to the last second of the fourth quarter. Those guys really put up the fight. Take into account that they’re young still. They’re only going to keep growing. That can’t be an excuse, but those guys are really putting up a fight and playing like seniors. When they’re playing, I can’t tell they’re a younger class.”
Clement said the one exception was left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, a junior who was playing his first FBS game after sitting out last season after transferring following two years at UW-Stevens Point. Ramczyk was flagged for a false start penalty in the second quarter on a third-and-four from the LSU 5. The Badgers threw an interception on the next play, but Ramczyk was penalty-free after that.
“I though he settled in,” Chryst said. “I thought he played really well the second half particularly.”
Watt on the narrative that LSU played poor, not Wisconsin played well
“At the end of the day we won the game. The media can twist it any way they want to; we know what we did. We set out to beat LSU and we did that. Now we’re moving on to Akron.”
Extra Points: Chryst said quarterback Bart Houston did a great job of competing Saturday and bouncing back when things didn’t go well … The backup inside linebackers for Wisconsin’s week two game are redshirt freshman Nick Thomas and true freshman Griffin Grady … Although left guard Micah Kapoi left the game with a left leg injury at halftime, he’s still listed as a co-starter with redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen.