MADISON—Welcome back Erasmus James. Welcome to the forefront Jason Jefferson.
Wisconsin's senior-laden defensive line flexed its collective muscles early and often Saturday, playing a starring role in the Badgers 34-6 win over Central Florida.
James got things going, flying into the backfield from his defensive end position and taking down UCF tailback Alex Haynes for a two-yard loss on the opening play from the line of scrimmage. Two plays later, Jefferson burst through the middle of the offensive line and corralled Golden Knights sophomore quarterback Steven Moffett before he could even get set in the pocket.
Fellow senior starters defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne and end Jonathan Welsh also took part in the disruption, along with a handful of reserves that saw playing time. The line's game-long dominance led a Wisconsin defense that held UCF to just 53 rushing yards and 230 total yards.
Central Florida's running game did not stall for lack of trying. The Golden Knights gave the ball to senior tailback Alex Haynes 21 times but he could only muster 56 yards. Haynes, who earlier this week was named a candidate for the Doak Walker award, had just 33 yards on 14 carries at halftime.
Haynes' most significant impact on the afternoon was keeping Hawthorne out of the end zone. The 312-pound defensive tackle intercepted a screen pass intended for Haynes and returned it 15 yards to the UCF 24 before Haynes made the tackle.
All four starting linemen played key roles in Hawthorne's pick. James and Jefferson quickly pressured Moffett, forcing him to throw off rhythm. Welsh read the play and was in front of Haynes, forcing Moffett to loft the ball over Welsh. The pass sailed too far, landing snugly in Hawthorne's hands.
"I think their defensive line, I haven't played many college football games, but they were probably one of the best I've seen," Moffett said. "Especially 77 (Hawthorne) and 74 (Jefferson). And those ends, they come real hard every play."
Saturday's matchup, however, was a bit of a mismatch. Wisconsin's starting quartet entered the game with a combined 79 career starts. Central Florida started two true freshmen and three sophomores on its offensive line with a combined 21 career starts.
"I thought today we didn't do as well as we'd like to do obviously in the offensive line," UCF acting head coach Dave Huxtable said. " I don't know if it was mistakes or if just physically we weren't able to do the job."
Jefferson said the defensive line's performance could have been better, citing a few missed reads and missed alignments.
"We didn't play flawless today," he said. "There were a lot of mistakes but we overcame them with good effort."
Qualifiers aside, the Badgers' defensive line performance was impressive and could be a harbinger of things to come.
Jefferson, for instance, was known as a plugger in his first two seasons as a starter and has often left the field in third-and-long situations. That was not the case Saturday. Jefferson still filled gaps and stuffed the run admirably, but he created more commotion in the backfield than he normally does.
"That's what I've been working on," Jefferson said. "I don't want to just be one-dimensional. I want to be able to do both (defend the run and rush the passer). I want to stay in on third downs, so that's what I worked on all during camp."
"Jason Jefferson is a great player," Hawthorne said. "He gets overlooked because there are other players on the defensive line, but he does great things…There is going to be a lot more to come from him this year."
James' return, after missing all of last season with a hip injury, also buoyed the Badgers. He finished with four tackles, including two for loss and one sack.
"It was a great feeling having him back out there," Hawthorne said. "He works hard every single snap. He made a couple big plays for us today."
Wisconsin also used a handful of reserves on the defensive line, particularly redshirt freshman end Jamal Cooper and sophomore end Joe Monty. Cooper made his presence felt in a big way when he sacked Moffett and forced a fumble that linebacker Dontez Sanders returned 50 yards for a touchdown. The touchdown, however, was reversed by the Big Ten replay official, who ruled that Sanders' knee had touched the ground. The fumble held up to scrutiny, as did Cooper's three tackles in his first game.
Senior defensive tackle Kalvin Barrett, redshirt freshman defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski and sophomore defensive end Mark Gorman also played Saturday. Gorman recorded one tackle and a half tackle for loss.
Defensive line makes a statement
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