The third year that many of these players had been playing together really saw Wisconsin elevate its level of play in the trenches.
Conor Sheehy deserves a ton of credit for his ability to move from end to nose tackle to replace an injured Olive Sagapolu for five games. It’s not an easy move to make, but Sheehy made it look effortless. Alec James took a step towards becoming Wisconsin’s best pass rusher off the edge. The junior made a number of plays that did and did not show up on the stat sheet that ended drives and altered throws. Chikwe Obasih played banged up all year and didn’t miss a game.
Those three players balanced each other out, all finishing between 27 and 22 tackles, four and 1.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 and 1.5 sacks.
Sagapoplu’s return for the Minnesota game and getting back to full health for the bowl game was critical, but it also allowed freshman Garrett Rand to get some work and experience. Western Michigan got some push up the middle and had some power runs, but the Broncos only managed 123 total rushing yards and had no player over 60, important considering their two-man tandem of Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan each averaged over 5.0 yards per carry.
For the season Wisconsin finished third in the country in rush defense, giving up only 98.8 yards per game.
The 3-4 scheme will rarely allow individual players to shine but the entire collective and depth of this group is what makes them shine and the rest of the defense tick.
No group on the team went through more adversity that the Wisconsin backers. Chris Orr was lost on the first play of the defense, Vince Biegel missed two games because of foot surgery against top-5 teams and Jack Cichy missed the final seven games with a torn pectoral. Yet, no group thrived more than this one.
Starting with the outside linebacker, T.J. Watt had a tremendous individual season that gave him the opportunity to jump to the N.F.L. after his junior season. He finished with 63 tackles – third best on the team – but was a natural at rushing the passer and had a knack for sniffing out plays. His 15.5 tackles for loss were the best on the team by far (T.J. Edwards was second at 8.5) and his 11.5 sacks were the fifth-best for a single season. There were only five games where Watt didn’t register a sack. He also led the team with 13 quarterback hurries (Biegel was second with seven) and his interception against Purdue that he returned for a touchdown was an impressive feat of athleticism.
Biegel’s numbers took a dip (44 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks) but that was to be expected with the amount of attention he was going to command. Biegel did his job perfectly, which opened up opportunities for Watt and others on the defense to make a play. His selfishness and his leadership made UW’s defense what it was.
Biegel’s injury did open up the door for Garret Dooley to get more playing time. After bouncing around positions throughout his tenure, Dooley showed he could handle the role with 40 tackles in 14 games (11 tackles, one sack, two quarterback hurries in his two starts with Biegel out). He’ll need to anchor that position in 2017 with some younger players stepping up.
Edwards missed the season opener and didn’t start the home opener, but that didn’t prevent him from leading the team in tackles (89) for the second straight season. The sophomore added creating turnovers to his game with three interceptions, including the critical interception off Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell that swung the momentum in the Cotton Bowl.
Cichy was on his way to an All-American season (60 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks) before he tore his pectoral prior to halftime of the Iowa game and his season ended after seven games. He still finished the game with 10 tackles, his third straight game with double-digit stops, and will be on many watch lists in 2017. The question is what position will he play?
Ryan Connelly finishing with 59 tackles (sixth on the team) might have been the biggest surprise of all. Thrust into action against LSU when Orr went down, the sophomore made seven stops against the Tigers, including a critical third-down tackle on LSU tailback Leonard Fournette that could have swung the game. He had at least eight tackles three more times, including a career-high 11 in the overtime win against Nebraska. He also had a fumble recovery for a touchdown against Penn State and an interception against Minnesota. His play was critical to UW sustain its success without Orr or Cichy.
Leon Jacobs deserves a hand after flipping back to inside linebacker from fullback when the injuries starting mounting and provided valuable reps.
UW won the time of possession battle 12 times and under 24 minutes eight times. That’s in large thanks to the linebackers, who provided substantial pressure to stop running games and open up turnover opportunities for the secondary.
OLB/ILB Grade: A
We marked it down in August – this was going to be the downfall of Wisconsin’s defense. Hopefully the pencil has an eraser.
Despite having to replace three starters, Wisconsin’s secondary out performed expectations and held seven teams over 200 yards. The Badgers were balances with their production, as four players registered at least three interceptions.
After taking a strong step forward in 2015, Sojourn Shelton earned the reputation as a top cornerback in 2016. He finished with four interceptions, two against Minnesota that helped the Badgers register their comeback. Starting 51 career games, a school record, Shelton had one of the most successful – and maybe unlikely – careers.
Elevated from nickel to starting corner, Derrick Tindal dealt with a hand issue that hurt his coverage skills and his ability to be physical. After three picks in the first five games, Tindal didn’t have one the rest of the season. He got surgery on it during the bye week but said he was in pain the remainder of the season and puts partial blame on it for the game-winning touchdown passes he gave up against Michigan and Ohio State. Healthier for the bowl game, Shelton and Tindal combined to make life difficult on Western Michigan’s Corey Davis – a likely first-round draft pick.
Outside of a 22-yard catch on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage, the two cornerbacks defended Davis as well as anybody had all season. It’s part of the reason why the Broncos passing offense only had 157 yards.
Natrell Jamerson being injured and missing six games with a leg injury hurt UW’s depth at the position. Lubern Figaro filled in well early but was beat for some big plays in the latter parts of the season, especially in the Big Ten title game when the Nittany Lions scored 31 points in the final 31 minutes.
UW’s starting corners were good but the combination of D'Cota Dixon and Leo Musso were great. Dixon filled in for Michael Caputo perfectly, being a hard-hitting, play-making safety who could play back in coverage or at the line of scrimmage. Dixon had so many memorable plays – game-sealing interception vs. LSU, forced fumble that Musso returned 66 yards for a score at Michigan State and a game-clinching pass breakup against Nebraska. Throw in his 60 tackles and Dixon was outstanding.
Musso wasn’t bad either. His 74 tackles were second-best on the team and his 50 solo stops were tops along with his five interceptions, three of which came in the last five games. Named the team’s most valuable player, Musso was also an impact player on special teams and massively improved his game from where it was starting his redshirt junior season.
Nine times this season UW held opponent’s passing game under 6.25 yards per pass and, other than the issues in the Penn State game, the secondary was above expectations.
Cornerback Grade: B-
Safety Grade: A
Wisconsin’s punting game was wildly inconsistent throughout most of the season, but freshman Anthony Lotti appeared to figure things out as the season progressed. UW only had four games where the Badgers averaged over 40 yards per punt and both Anthony Lotti and P.J. Rosowski averaged under 38 yards per punt. Lotti did develop a strong knack for pinning opponents deep in their own territory, dropping 25 of his 51 kicks inside the 20 (many inside the 10) and only one touchback.
The Badgers were thrown a curveball when Rafael Gaglianone (7-for-8 on field goals) went down with a back injury before conference play, but senior Andrew Endicott did a decent job. Although he went through a stretch where he missed five out of nine kicks and missed a couple extra points, Endicott made five out of his final six and finished the season 13-for-19. He never missed a kick in a game that cost Wisconsin.
While his punting game was more misses than hits, Rosowski was tremendous on kickoffs. Of his 79 kicks, 51 went for touchbacks and only one went out of bounds thanks to a return misjudging the kick. He was on point in the bowl game, limiting the dangerous Darius Phillips to only one return for 15 yards. Those numbers were important because the Badgers gave up some big busts against Iowa and Minnesota. Had Rosowski not been on point, maybe the Badgers don’t finish where they finish.
UW’s punt return units were unspectacular. Jazz Peavy had 17 returns for 99 yards (5.82 yards per return) and the team’s longest return was 24 yards. UW gave up a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown against Akron for the Zips only score.
UW finished 50th in kick return defense (19.97), 58th in the country in punt return defense (7.3 per game), 84th in punt return (6.81) and 86th in kick returns (19.81).
Joe Rudolph was dealt another tough hand as offensive line coach with Dan Voltz’s retirement and the injury carousel early in the season. It wasn’t pretty but he made things work and the group really soared after the bye week. His job preparing Ryan Ramczyk for division 1 football at the vulnerable left tackle spot was tremendous.
The work Ted Gilmore has done can be seen with the way Peavy elevated his game from last year and how Quintez Cephus understood how important downfield blocking was to the success of big plays. Gilmore found a gem in Cephus.
John Settle’s ability to push Corey Clement allowed the senior to reach his potential, and the work he did with Bradrick Shaw showed the redshirt freshman he’s just scratching the surface. Kudos to him as well for developing a role for Dare Ogunbowale.
Mickey Turner’s understanding of the Wisconsin tight end position allowed Troy Fumagalli, Eric Steffes and others to flourish in the offense.
In his first season at Wisconsin, Justin Wilcox elevated Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense to making Wisconsin’s front more active and aggressive, a domino effect that led to big results. In 14 games, Wisconsin’s defense stopped teams on 9.2 third down opportunities. Only Nebraska (50 percent) and Western Michigan (45.5) converted only 40 percent of its third downs against Wisconsin’s defense. Wilcox (doubling as the inside linebacker coach) navigate UW through some choppy injury waters to get the reserves to play at a high level.
Tim Tibesar coached one of the best one-two OLB punches in the country, Inoke Breckterfield developed a smart rotation to get the defensive line fresh and Jim Leonhard looked like he had been coaching for years, bringing in fresh techniques that resonated with the players.
The coaching staff helped the Badgers finish fourth in scoring defense (15.6 ppg), seventh in total defense (301.4 yards per game) and 10th in pass efficiency defense (106.9).
Paul Chryst always downplayed the toughness factor with the schedule, saying it was full of opportunities. His approach of taking one week for its unique challenges, never getting too high after a win or too low after a loss, was the right approach that this group bought into. They trusted his game plan, which extracted all the talent it could out of his quarterbacks and the rest of the group. Chryst may not win any press conferences, but he sure as heck has won a lot of game in two seasons at Wisconsin with a bright future ahead.