EAST LANSING, Mich. – An offensive lineman is suppose to manage his emotions and approach everything in a workmanlike manner, at least that’s the philosophy Brett Connors has used during his three years at the University of Wisconsin.
So it was fitting that Connors found out he was getting his first career start, in the Big Ten opener against defending conference champion Michigan State nonetheless, in a very apropos way.
“It was real laid back,” Connors said. “Coach Chryst told me real quick and I went to practice.”
After being awarded a scholarship at the beginning of the month, Connors validated that decision by being a key piece in Wisconsin’s 30-6 win at No.8 Michigan State Saturday.
With left guards Jon Dietzen (leg) and Micah Kapoi (foot) out, Wisconsin shuffled the offensive line for the third time in four games by inserting Connors at center and moving Michael Deiter to left guard, a position where he had started the first seven games of last season.
The result was the Badgers becoming the first team to rush for more than a 100 yards (122) against the Spartans this season.
“Brett’s giving us a chance,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said, as the Badgers moved up three spots to No.8 in the Associated Press poll Sunday. “In spring ball he played all five positions. We thought for us to matchup with Michigan State’s defense, it would help us with Michael at the guard spot … I thought Rudy (offensive line coach Joe Rudolph) did a nice job and most of all the kids. They owned it, and did a great job in the preparation and trusting it.”
With Wisconsin thin on experience among its backups this season, Connors has been the every man. On this week’s depth chart he was listed as the backup at left tackle, right tackle and center, the latter being the position he’s most comfortable at and where he has taken the most snaps in practice.
Connors took all the reps Monday during a walkthrough and felt he had a pretty good idea of what the game plan would be against the Spartans. He officially knew he’d start Thursday.
“I just tried to put myself in the mindset that it could happen,” Connors said.
The admitted jitters Connors had during the game were evident early on. During Wisconsin’s first series, he got shoved three yards deep into the pocket by lineman Raequon Williams, who then disengaged and was able to swat the ball out of redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s hands. The Spartans opened the scoring with a field goal seven plays later.
Things got sustainable better after that, as UW’s front gave up one sack and three quarterback hurries on the final 11 drives.
“There isn’t a drop off at all,” Deiter said. “He just fit in. He was calm. He didn’t get too high or too low.”
Connors’ even-keel approach extends off the field, too. Roughly three weeks ago prior to a team meeting, Chryst informed him privately he would be getting a scholarship.
“He wanted to keep it real quick,” Connors said, referring to Chryst. “He told me one-on-one, I went to the team meeting and then Tuesday practice. It was definitely surreal, but I had to go out there and have a good Tuesday. You only get one Tuesday a week.”
After almost committing to playing at Western Illinois out of high school, Connors picked the walk-on opportunity to Wisconsin after getting a strong sale’s pitch from former defensive backs coach Ben Strickland. It’s a decision that has paid dividends ever since.
Connors kept his composure and had a good practice, but he recalled the phone call home after practice was a different story.
“My thought I was lying for the first minute or so,” Connors said. “It was pretty surreal.”