The Wisconsin football team has enjoyed the luxury of a healthy, veteran defensive line this season. When the Badgers take the field Saturday for an 11 a.m. homecoming game against Northwestern, however, they will not have end Erasmus James at their disposal and end Jonathan Welsh is doubtful.
Both players suffered ankle injuries in the Badgers' 20-17 win over Purdue last week. Wisconsin announced Sunday that James would not play at least until the Badgers' Nov. 6 home game against Minnesota. Welsh has only minimally taken part in practice this week.
"It changes like it does in football," defensive line coach John Palermo said. "If somebody gets hurt you've got to plug somebody else in there. You can't worry about what you wish you had."
"The next guy has got to step up," cornerback Brett Bell said. "That is something the coaches emphasize from day one. You always got to have the next person step up and the No. 2 has got to play like a No. 1…That is something that we buy into."
James and Welsh have given Wisconsin a fearsome pass rush all season, providing nine of the team's Big Ten leading 25 sacks. What Palermo has in reserve is a group of young, talented defensive ends who are at varying stages of development. The focal point of the group is 6-foot-4, 208-pound redshirt freshman Jamal Cooper. Though small for the position, Cooper has the quickness to get in the backfield and make plays.
"Jamal Cooper just continues to astound me and amaze me ‘cause for a little guy he has a good motor and he's played very well for us," Palermo said.
The St. Louis native, however, has not always devoted himself to practice as he knows he should. That has changed this week.
"He didn't have a choice now," Palermo said. "I told him he needs to step it up and he did."
Cooper played 63 snaps against Purdue and had three tackles and a pass breakup. He has just nine tackles this season, but four were for loss, including two sacks.
"I think he held up pretty good against Purdue," defensive tackle Anttaj Hawthorne said. "He just needs to clean up a couple more things to reach the level that he needs to be at."
"He didn't have any problems physically at all," Palermo said. "He's more suited for that kind of offense—that spread type offense. If you are going to lose somebody that's the right game to lose him in."
Northwestern also likes to spread the field and play fast on offense but the Wildcats boast an offensive line that is more experienced, talented and physical than Purdue's edition. That combination will pose a greater challenge for Cooper and Wisconsin's defensive line generally.
In addition to Cooper, sophomore end Joe Monty will be relied upon heavily Saturday. He is less athletic than Cooper, James or Welsh but is a fundamentally sound two-way end who has played in 19 games the past two seasons.
"Joe Monty is steady Eddie," Palermo said. "You put Joe Monty in any position, any time, anywhere and he's going to do exactly what he's supposed to do."
Redshirt freshman Brandon Kelly, a converted linebacker, and sophomore Mark Gorman also saw their reps increase against Purdue and will be called upon Saturday. In a bind, the Badgers even used starting sam linebacker Mark Zalewski at end and considered playing starting offensive left tackle Joe Thomas at end.
"I was pretty darn close. I thought about it but I didn't do it," Palermo said. "If somebody else would have gotten hurt I probably would have had to put him in there."
Thomas has not practiced at defensive end since prior to last season's Music City Bowl. He moved from reserve offensive tackle to starting defensive end for that game, and had seven tackles.
"If I told him what to do he could go out there and do it," Palermo said. "He wouldn't do it great but he could do it."
The impact Welsh, who had eight sacks last season, and James, who leads the Big Ten in sacks this season with seven, have on a game cannot be played down.
Last week, the Badgers shutout Purdue's high-octane offense in the first half with James and Welsh putting near constant pressure on Orton. With them out of the game in the second half, Purdue wracked up 245 yards and 17 points.
Still, Wisconsin's defense scored off a turnover to take the lead and held off Orton and Purdue on the game's final drive.
"I think we proved ourselves on Saturday against Purdue but I'm sure [Northwestern's] going to be another test for us," Hawthorne said.
Time to shine
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