“I think that’s just overused,” Connelly said, smiling.
It’s been a common cliché this season because the plethora of injuries have forced reserves to consistently step in, and the Badgers’ defense has continued to thrive with those players taking advantage of opportunities.
Having to overcome its latest major injury, this one being Jack Cichy’s torn pectoral against Iowa, Wisconsin inside linebackers Connelly and Leon Jacobs each tied for the team-high with 11 tackles (seven solo) in the Badgers’ 23-17 overtime win over No.7 Nebraska.
“We knew that the other guys on the team, the coaches, everyone had full confidence in us,” Connelly said. “They knew there wouldn’t be a drop off, but in a way, yeah, we wanted to prove to everyone outside the building there wouldn’t be one.”
Connelly is used to having to jump into the mix. He filled in for Chris Orr when the sophomore tore up his knee on the first defensive play from scrimmage in the season opener against No.5 LSU and started the next week while inside linebacker T.J. Edwards was still rehabbing his broken left foot.
Just like Connelly making solo stops on the Tigers’ Leonard Fournette, the sophomore delivered two pass breakups at the line of scrimmage and two tackles for loss, one chasing down Nebraska receiver Jordan Westerkamp on a reverse for minus-1 and another on second down in overtime.
“Ryan chasing down Westerkamp was unbelievable,” Edwards said.
Jacobs was a projected starter at inside linebacker to begin last season until a foot injury ending his season before conference play. Since then he was moved to fullback and then back again due to the rash of injuries.
Admitting bouncing around was tough at the beginning, Jacobs calls playing inside linebacker “the best position in football.”
“You get to run around and play football,” Jacobs said.
Throw in outside linebacker Garret Dooley’s seven tackles and the Badgers’ three leading tacklers all began the season as reserves. The testament to that production, according to Jacobs, goes to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
“He prepares us, teaches the first string as much as the third or fourth string,” Jacobs said. “He even teaches the scout guys and they are getting better. He just does a good job. He’s a great coach. He develops us throughout the season, and I think that showed off between me and Ryan.”
A week after giving senior quarterback Bart Houston two series to relieve Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst decided to put the ball in his senior’s hands considerably more. But when overtime came around, Chryst didn’t have the luxury of the coin toss to figure out who would lead the offense.
Hornibrook had started the game and was under center for both of Wisconsin’s regulation touchdown drives, but the offense struggled early under his watch, he threw a fourth-quarter interception and barely played down the stretch.
Houston led the Badgers on a field-goal drive in the second quarter and ran the offense for its final two drives of regulation — one ended with an interception and the other a missed field goal.
While neither quarterback was in much of a rhythm, Chryst went with Houston for the extra period.
“He'd just been going and I thought depending on what we might need he gave us the best chance,” Chryst said of the decision. “Really both could have gone in and we kind of just stayed with him as much as picking one over the other.”
In reality, Chryst didn’t let Houston do much. After Houston’s interception, Chryst called five run plays on the ensuing drive, which ended with a missed 45-yard field goal. In overtime it was four consecutive run plays, the final being an 11-yard Dare Ogunbowale touchdown.
Multiple offensive players and both quarterbacks downplayed the rotation in postgame interviews but it’s obvious Chryst divided the reps more than he did the week before. The numbers were also worse than the 17-9 win at Iowa, as Hornibrook finished 10 of 16 for 71 yards and Houston 4 of 7 for 43. Both threw an interception, while Hornibrook threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Rob Wheelwright in the third quarter and Houston was sacked twice.
Both players maintain there is no scripted plan on when they enter the game and no problem with rhythm. Even though Wisconsin threw for just 114 yards, Chryst appears to be sticking with both players.
“I think that for us moving forward for us to be the best team we can be we've got to have everyone and I think I've got to do a better job of helping the quarterbacks," Chryst said. “I thought both had some really good moments. Those picks hurt you, but I also want them to play. I don't want them playing on edge. We knew we were going to play them all ... and I'm glad we did.”
With sophomore right tackle Jacob Maxwell dealing with an ailing right shoulder, Wisconsin’s offensive line shuffle continue with redshirt freshman David Edwards getting his first career start. When spring camp broke in April, Edwards was getting reps as a third-string tight end, a sign of how quickly Edwards has picked up the position and how thin the program is on offensive linemen.
Through eight games, Wisconsin has started four different offensive line combinations and have consistently moved players around to different position. That trend continued, although the rotating appeared to be limited to sophomore Micah Kapoi filling it at times at both guard positions.
Extra Points: Wisconsin had never beat an opponent that came into the game 7-0 or better and in the AP poll. Badgers are now 1-9-1 in such games … The Badgers are bowl eligible for a 15th-consecutive season, extending the longest active bowl streak in the Big Ten … In its school-record fifth matchup against a top-10 opponent, Wisconsin picked up its third win, also a program record.