Wisconsin’s defense comes up big in win over Purdue

MADISON, Wis. | As afternoon turned to evening Saturday the Wisconsin Badgers improved to 6-0 on the season, defeating Purdue 17-9 at a soaked Camp Randall Stadium.

Much like the weather, the game between the Badgers and Boilermakers was ugly throughout. Wisconsin was able to beat Purdue for a 12th straight time thanks to its defense overcoming those adverse conditions and the difficult situations they routinely found themselves in.

On a weekend where college football saw two top-10 teams lose to unranked opponents on Friday, and several more unbeaten teams fall on Saturday, Wisconsin saw a plethora of things go wrong offensively, yet came out with the win because the Badgers did so much well defensively.

A pair of Alex Hornibrook interceptions, a fumble by Jonathan Taylor and a blocked punt forced the Badgers to step up defensively to keep them ahead in the game. That challenge was met. The unit is at the point where they expect to not only win games, but be the reason the team can win in an ugly fashion, the way they did Saturday.

As far as being able to succeed in stressful situations, that’s something the defense has shown they can be counted on for.

“We most definitely take pride in it as soon as we take the field and we’re in that position,” linebacker Chris Orr said following the win. “Everybody is saying ‘They don’t get in the end zone’ or ‘They only leave [with] three at the most.’ It’s most definitely something we take pride in.”

Purdue came away with two field goals in four red zone trips on the day. Their other two trips ended in a Leon Jacobs interception and a missed field goal. Both red zone stops the Badgers got could not have come at a better time for the team.

After the Badgers were forced to punt from their own 47-yard-line, punter Anthony Lotti had his kick blocked by Purdue’s Garrett Hudson. The ball was then scooped up by Race Johnson of the Boilermakers and returned 18 yards. Johnson had a clear path to the end zone, however he came up injured on the play and fell to the turf at Wisconsin’s 15-yard-line.

That was the break the Badgers needed. Over the next four plays, they pushed the Boilermakers back 10 yards, to the 25-yard-line. It was from that spot that kicker JD Dellinger missed the 42-yard attempt.

The other crucial possession came late in the game. After Wisconsin went three-and-out deep in its own territory, the Badgers were forced to punt the ball back to Purdue, holding a 17-9 lead. Elijah Sindelar drove the Boilermakers down the field, reaching the Wisconsin 7-yard line before Jacobs made Sindelar pay for poor decision and throw, coming up with the interception.

“I thought he was throwing it away,” Orr said. “I saw Leon [Jacobs] and the receiver and first I thought, because [Jacob’s] got frying pans for hands, he was going to drop it. But he caught it.

“That was probably the biggest play of the day. Definitely sealed the game for us defensively.”

Wisconsin entered the game ranked No. 8 in the country in red zone defense, allowing teams to score on just 66.7 percent of the ventures inside the 20. The Badgers were even better on Saturday.

“It’s just attitude,” Orr said. “You have to tell yourself and tell your teammates, ‘They’re not going to get in the end zone no matter what. We’re going to fight, claw, scratch battle.’”

Coach Paul Chryst thought the defense was the biggest reason the Badgers were able to come out on top.

“I thought our defense was sensational,” Chryst said.

Another impressive part of the second-half defensive effort was that it came without star linebacker T.J. Edwards. The junior was ejected from the game on a targeting call shortly before halftime. It was tough to lose a leader like Edwards, but the defense was able to rally around his absence.

“Obviously, it sucks losing a linebacker like T.J. [Edwards],” linebacker Garrett Dooley said following the game. “Great player, great leader, but the good news is we have other inside linebackers who have proven to make plays and step up in big spots.”

Before leaving the field, Edwards was able to have one last act of leadership for the day.

“[Edwards] just said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. I know you guys are going to keep balling out there and win this game,’” Dooley said.

Just like a great defense does, the Badgers overcame all the adversity that was thrown at them against Purdue. That’s something that cannot be overstated for this unbeaten squad.

(9) Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17: 2-minute drill

LINCOLN, Neb. — Freshman Jonathan Taylor ran for 249 yards and two touchdowns as Wisconsin hammered Nebraska 38-17 Saturday night at Memorial Stadium to move to 5-0 for the first time since 2011.

Play of the Game

Nebraska had just gotten the stadium rocking with an 80-yard touchdown catch and run from wide receiver Stanley Morgan to get within 10-7 late in the second quarter. But Wisconsin had an answer — or more accurately — Taylor had an answer. On the first play of the ensuing drive, the running back got the handoff, burst through a hole on the right side and outran the safety for a 75-yard score to give the Badgers the momentum back.

Game Balls

Offense: Jonathan Taylor

In his just his fifth college game, the New Jersey product topped the 200-yard mark for a second time this season. And he did it by averaging 10 yards per carry, showing off both his power, speed and agility that made him so productive in high school. It’s becoming more clear by the day that Wisconsin got an absolute steal in Taylor.

Defense: CB Nick Nelson

Facing what was the best group of wide receivers Wisconsin had seen so far, the Badgers’ top cornerback had perhaps his best game of the year. Nelson finished with a team-high three pass breakups, and was draped all over Nebraska’s pass catchers. Nelson has been good this season, but Saturday night he took it to another level.

Special Teams: Zach Hintze

Wisconsin kicked off seven times and Hintze put five of them in the end zone, while popping another one up that allowed the coverage team to get down and stop Nebraska at its own 17-yard line.

Video of the game

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst talks to the media after the game
Linebacker Chris Orr on his interception return for a touchdown

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin’s captains were wide receiver Jazz Peavy, tight end Troy Fumagalli, safety Natrell Jamerson and defensive end Alec James.

— Walk-on Jason Erdmann replaced an injured Jon Dietzen at left guard late in the first half.

— After missing last week’s game against Northwestern with a leg injury, Fumagalli returned to the lineup and had three catches for 31 yards.

— After Nebraska tied the game at 17 with 10:43 left in the third quarter, Wisconsin ran the ball on 29 of the next 31 plays, outscoring the Huskers 21-0 in that stretch.

Inside the Numbers

131 — That’s how many points Wisconsin has outscored Nebraska in the seven games since the Huskers entered in the Big Ten in 2011. The Badgers are 6-1 in those games.

75 — That’s how long Jonathan Taylor’s second quarter touchdown run was — the longest play from scrimmage for the Badgers since an 88-yard catch and run by Melvin Gordon in 2014 against Iowa.

14 — That’s how many players have run for 200 yards against Nebraska. Of the 14, three of them are Badgers — Montee Ball (2012), Melvin Gordon (2012, 2014) and Jonathan Taylor (2017).

20 — That’s how many straight night games Nebraska had won at Memorial Stadium — a streak the Badgers stopped on Saturday night.

353 — That’s how many yards rushing Wisconsin had for the game, the most in a road game since 2012.

3 — That’s how many interceptions Wisconsin has returned for touchdowns this year, matching the most for the program in the last 20 years. The Badgers also had three in 1999 and 2010.

0 — That’s how many points Wisconsin’s defense allowed in the second half — the fourth time this year the Badgers haven’t allowed the opposing offense to score after halftime this year.

What’s Next

Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0) will return home to face Purdue (3-2, 1-1) at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

Grades for Wisconsin at the quarter pole of the season

These types of articles are normally reserved for the middle of the season when you’ve likely got six or more games to judge a team on. But with Wisconsin’s bye coming after just three weeks — and no other break in the action until the first or second week of December — we decided to undertake an effort to grade what we’ve seen so far in a 3-0 start for the Badgers. Is it fair to do so with such a small sample size? Probably not. But here we go.

Quarterback: B+

Save for a rough outing late in the second quarter and most of the second half against Florida Atlantic, Alex Hornibrook has been fantastic in his second year as a starter. After throwing nine touchdowns all of last year, the sophomore has thrown eight already and is on pace to break Russell Wilson’s single-season school record of 33. And perhaps even more importantly, he’s got just one interception.

The competition will certainly pick up in Big Ten play, but Hornibrook looks like the quarterback many envisioned coming into the year.

Running back: A-

If we were grading this based on Jonathan Taylor alone, it would have easily been an A+. The New Jersey native has been terrific in averaging 146 yards per game — tops for any freshman in the country. He’s still learning and isn’t perfect, but his blend of power, speed and balance make him a terror for defenses.

The rest of the running back group has been up and down. Junior Chris James was anxious and struggled in his debut against Utah State, before bouncing back with a 100-yard outing in a win over Florida Atlantic. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw looked solid as the starter in the opener, but an injury kept him out in Week 2, and it seems unlikely he’ll get his job back this season considering what Taylor has done.

The freshman is the lead dog here and is the reason for such a high grade.

Wide receiver: B

All of the wide receivers have taken a significant leap from a year ago, especially Quintez Cephus. The sophomore already has three touchdowns and has become Wisconsin’s No. 1 option on the outside.

A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Jazz Peavy have all been involved and looked solid, but the overall grade suffers due to the drops in the first two weeks. Still, this group has the makings of being the deepest Wisconsin has had in recent memory. Their final grade figures to be much higher.

Tight ends: A-

Troy Fumagalli was outstanding in the first two games, gaining nearly 100 yards each week. He caught his third touchdown of the year against BYU in what was an otherwise quiet game for the preseason All-American. The senior has also been part of a strong rushing attack that is currently second in the Big Ten.

Outside of junior Zander Neuville’s impressive touchdown catch against Utah State, he and sophomore Kyle Penniston have not really been heavily involved in the passing game, combining for five catches through three games. They, like Fumagalli, still play a vital role in the run game.

LISTEN: The latest edition of our Wisconsin podcast ‘The Camp’

Offensive line: B

The numbers would suggest Wisconsin has been off the charts good along the line, as the Badgers rank 14th in the country in rushing at 275 yards per game and are giving up about one sack per game. But while they’ve been pretty good, in only one game — against BYU — were they the dominating unit many thought they would be. While the game was still in doubt, they opened huge running holes and allowed Hornibrook to have all day to pass. If they can get that kind of effort on a week-to-week basis, their end of the of season grade will jump significantly.

Defensive line: B+

Wisconsin’s defense isn’t designed for the linemen to have big numbers, and that has certainly played out for the group in the first three games as they’ve combined for just one tackle for loss. But they’ve played a role in helping the Badgers limit opponents to 90.6 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 15th in the nation.

They’ve done it largely without senior Chikwe Obasih (knee), who remains sidelined indefinitely . While it’s been a challenge without him, redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk has filled in nicely behind senior starters Alec James and Conor Sheehy.

Linebackers: A-

Teams have been able to run the ball early in games against Wisconsin, but that’s been more about scheme than anything physical. Once they’ve had a chance to digest what they’re seeing, it’s been lights out for opposing offenses.

At inside linebacker, sophomore Chris Orr leads the team in tackles coming off a missed season with a torn ACL, while junior T.J. Edwards has continued to evolve as a playmaker, coming up with three tackles for loss and two interceptions. Junior Ryan Connelly has been solid, too.

On the outside, senior Leon Jacobs leads Wisconsin with four tackles for loss, senior Garret Dooley has been solid on the edge, and junior Andrew Van Ginkel has proven to be the pass rusher the Badgers needed with his two sacks.

Secondary: B

Wisconsin has been up in its games, so the passing numbers for the opposition aren’t great indicators of how well the secondary is playing — and they are playing well. The only concern here is the issues they had in communication in the first two games, including on a play that resulted in a long touchdown for Florida Atlantic. But none of those things showed up against BYU, and it’s possible they just needed time to adjust with several new faces seeing the field for the first time.

Special teams: B+

The Badgers have been solid here, with kicker Rafael Gaglianone going 3 of 4 on field goals, while Anthony Lotti has dropped four of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. With kickoffs split between Zach Hintze and P.J. Rosowski, Wisconsin is allowing opponents to start — on average — at their own 22-yard line.

The return units with Nick Nelson and Taylor, especially the latter on kickoff, have been one or two blocks away from taking one back for a score.

Overall: A-

After an uneven first two weeks, Wisconsin showed against BYU what it can be and what many believe it will be. That’s reflected in the overall grade, as we add in the promise shown and the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factor.

Assessing the inside linebackers in the wake of Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury

MADISON — Jack Cichy is done for the year after tearing the ACL in his right knee Tuesday night at practice. And for the second time in 10 months, Wisconsin players and coaches are having to field questions about where they go from here now that they don’t have their fiery and talented inside linebacker. The choices, like they were last October when Cichy tore his left pectoral muscle and missed the second half of the season, are far better than most teams in the country could hope for in a similar situation.

Here’s our look at who has a chance to roll with the first-team defense next to to three-year starter T.J. Edwards and attempt to fill the massive void left by Cichy

Junior Ryan Connelly (2016: 59 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 1 interception)

Connelly started the final seven games of last season after Cichy went down and filled in admirably. A former walk-on just like Cichy, Connelly, according to PFF College Football, had the No. 1 run stop percentage among all returning inside linebackers in the country. He would likely be a heavy favorite to be Cichy’s replacement once again, but he’s currently dealing with a leg injury of his own that has kept him out of practice for the last week. Coach Paul Chryst said the injury isn’t season-ending, but he also gave no indication when the Minnesota native would be able to return.

Sophomore Chris Orr (2016: Torn ACL on first snap. 2015: 46 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, .5 sack)

Orr started five games as a true freshman in 2015 before tearing his left ACL on the first snap of 2016. He’s now fully recovered and was running with the first-team defense on Thursday morning. Orr is not the biggest guy, but being relentless and instinctive are two of his better traits. Depending on how long Connelly remains out, Orr very well could grab ahold of the job and not let go.

Sophomore Griffin Grady (2016: 12 games, 4 tackles)

One of just six true freshmen to see the field for Wisconsin in 2016, Grady was a fixture on special teams and looked solid in mop-up time at inside linebacker. Unfortunately for him and the Badgers, the Dublin, Ohio., product has missed most of fall camp with an illness, preventing him from getting vital reps.

Junior Arrington Farrar (2016: 7 tackles, 1 forced fumble)

A safety his first two years on campus, Farrar moved to inside linebacker during spring practice for Wisconsin. The change allowed him to bulk up as opposed to constantly worrying about keeping his weight down to play in the secondary. One of Wisconsin’s key guys on special teams, Farrar admitted in the spring that redshirting in 2017 was a possibility with all the talent in front of him. That might not be the case now that Cichy’s season is over.

Redshirt freshman Mike Maskalunas (2016: redshirt)

From Long Grove, Ill., Maskalunas has the chance to be the next walk-on to hit it big at linebacker, joining the likes of Joe Schobert, Marcus Trotter, Ethan Armstrong, Cichy and Connelly. Asked what young guy stood out to him during the summer, tight end Troy Fumagalli singled out Maskalunas.

“He’s a hard worker, puts his head down, does the right things,” Fumagalli said on ‘The Camp.’ “He’s got a bunch of talent in front of him. You might not see him right away. People might speculate [about his future]. But if he keeps on the same path of working hard and follows those guys in front of him, I think he’s going to be a really good player one day.”

Like he did with Barry Alvarez, former coach Lou Holtz made an impression on the current Badgers

MADISON — Lou Holtz has been one of the biggest professional influences in Barry Alvarez’s life. The Hall of Fame coach hired Alvarez to oversee the linebackers at Notre Dame in 1987 and then had him run his defense the two years after that. The lessons learned and the advice gained during that short time together stayed with Alvarez during his 16 years as the head coach at Wisconsin and his 14 years as the school’s athletic director. So when Alvarez offered to have Holtz come speak to this year’s team, current coach Paul Chryst was receptive to the idea.

“Certainly there’s a lot of the philosophical foundational pieces that Coach Alvarez got from him, and I certainly have gotten from Coach Alvarez,” Chryst said of the points hammered home by Holtz. “The game is a vehicle we can use to teach and help these young guys grow. It was a good message.”

A majority of the players these days know Holtz more for his time on TV than as the coach of six different college programs, including his 11 years with the Fighting Irish where he led the program to its 11th national title in 1988. Yet, despite the nearly 60-year age difference between Holtz and most of the Badgers, his message to them of knowing their role on the team, and the need to embrace it, hit home with several players.

LISTEN: CB Derrick Tindal says it’s time the UW secondary gets some respect.

“Don’t be the guy that [doesn’t] accept your role,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said of what stood out to him. “Everybody can’t be a superstar. Everybody can’t be a starter. If your job is on special teams, and we need you to block, do that to the best of your ability.

“You think I like going out there to block on punt return sometimes? [No.] But I’m going to do whatever to help the team. I don’t care if it’s punt return, kickoff, kick return. They can put me on the front line if they want to. If they feel like that’s what is going to help the team, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I thought [coach] Holtz did a good job of [getting that message across].”

In recent years, injuries have forced Wisconsin to adapt on the fly and go deep into its roster to find replacements. And it’s worked well because players haven’t fallen into the trap of just going through the motions when they know they’ll likely be back on the bench when the first-team player returns. Instead, they’ve seen an opportunity and pounced on it, sometimes with stellar results.

LISTEN: UW coach Paul Chryst says the backup QBs are still very early in their development.

It was that type of work that led to the rise of linebackers Jack Cichy, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly in the last two seasons, while also giving wide receiver Jazz Peavy the break he needed when guys at his position went down. Wisconsin’s football history is littered with similar examples.

“Embracing your role on this team and never being content with anything that you’re doing,” Orr said of his biggest takeaway from Holtz’s speech. “I think that was a good message for young guys and old guys [to hear].”

For nose guard Garrett Rand, whose high school coach played for Holtz at Notre Dame, the overriding theme was to focus on holding up his end of the bargain and expect his teammates to do the same.

“Even for the guys that aren’t playing as much, do your job,” Rand said. “[If you do] your job, everything else will be fine.”

Wisconsin LB Chris Orr receives medical redshirt

MADISON — Wisconsin is focused on the 2017 season, but the school got some good news for its future on Wednesday.

Team officials said linebacker Chris Orr, who was injured at the beginning of last season, got his medical redshirt approved by the NCAA. Though it was thought to be a foregone conclusion he would receive the year, the paperwork makes it official, and it leaves him a redshirt sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.

Orr started six games a freshman in 2015 and was in the lineup at the beginning of 2016 against LSU when his knee buckled on the first defensive snap of the year. It proved to be a torn ACL and kept him out the rest of the season and all of spring practice. Orr returned to the field this week when the team opened fall camp and hasn’t been restricted at all outside of having to wear a knee brace.

The Texas native is currently playing with the second-team defense at inside linebacker behind senior Jack Cichy and junior T.J. Edwards.

Wisconsin opens the season Sept. 1 against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin loses inside linebacker Chris Orr for the rest of the year

MADISON | Wisconsin will not have the services of inside linebacker Chris Orr for the rest of the season.

The sophomore tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the first play of the game against LSU.

Orr played in 10 games as a freshman, including six starts, finishing with 46 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss.

Redshirt sophomore Ryan Connelly replaced Orr against the Tigers, and finished with seven tackles, the second-most on the team.

Sophomore T.J. Edwards, who was the team’s leading tackler last season but missed the opener with a foot injury, is listed as questionable for Saturday’s contest against Akron.

Wisconsin football preview: Linebackers

MADISON | The Wisconsin football team will open fall camp on Aug. 8, so over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to preview head coach Paul Chryst’s second team in Madison.

Today we take a look at the linebackers.

Linebackers

It’s rare when you can lose an All-American like Joe Schobert and not be worried about a potential drop-off in play. But that’s exactly the feeling around the Wisconsin football program as their group of linebackers enters the post-Schobert era. Instead of losing sleep over the departure of the reigning Big Ten Linebacker of the Year, there are many that feel the unit can be stronger this season than it was a year ago.

It starts with outside linebacker Vince Biegel. The boisterous and productive senior decided to return for his final season in Madison and does so with a major chip on his shoulder. After finishing with eight sacks and 14 tackles for loss last season, Biegel was named a consensus third-team All-Big Ten selection. He took it as a slight, so now, having moved into the spot occupied by Schobert last year, he’s aiming to prove he’s a better player than given credit for, and in turn, help his NFL stock. The Wisconsin native has also taken a major leadership role, something he’s attacked seriously both on and off the field.

The guy on the other side of Biegel – T.J. Watt — is why many aren’t expecting a big dip in play among the linebackers. Few have generated as much excitement before becoming a starter than Watt. Injuries kept the junior off the field his first few seasons, but in the first year since moving from tight end to outside linebacker, Watt showed glimpses of play-making ability, including having a role in three of the five turnovers the Badgers forced in their game against Minnesota last November. He continued to show those glimpses in the spring and could be poised for a breakout season.

Junior Garrett Dooley and redshirt freshman Zack Baun should fill-in behind those two.

Wisconsin is also loaded with experience and talent at inside linebacker. The biggest question there is how long T.J. Edwards will be out. The redshirt sophomore led the team in tackles a year ago with 84 and was an All-Big Ten honorable mention pick, but he suffered a foot injury during the summer and is out indefinitely. It’s possible he could miss the first game of the year against LSU.

If that ends up happening, junior Jack Cichy and sophomore Chris Orr would man the inside spots. All that pair did last year was combine for 106 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, with Cichy earning Defensive Player of the Game honors in the Holiday Bowl.

Depth chart projection:

Outside linebacker: 1) Vince Biegel, Senior 2) Garrett Dooley, RS Junior
Inside linebacker: 1) T.J. Edwards, RS Sophomore 2) Ryan Connelly, RS Sophomore
Inside linebacker: 1) Jack Cichy, RS Junior 2) Chris Orr, Sophomore
Outside linebacker: 1) T.J. Watt, RS Junior 2) Zack Baun, RS Freshman

Monday: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers
Tuesday: Offensive line, tight ends
Wednesday: Defensive line
Today: Linebackers

Report: Wisconsin LB T.J. Edwards out indefinitely with a foot injury

MADISON | Even before they open fall camp, the Wisconsin football team may have already suffered what could potentially be a significant hit to their defense.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that inside linebacker T.J. Edwards is out indefinitely with a foot injury.

The sophomore was an honorable mention All-Big Ten performer last season, starting all 13 games and leading a Wisconsin defense that finished first in the nation in points allowed (13.7 points per game) and second in total defense (268.5 yards per game).

Despite Edwards’ value to the defense, if there was any position Wisconsin could afford a loss it would be at inside linebacker where they have depth and experience.

Sophomore Chris Orr started six games a year ago and finished with 46 tackles, while junior Jack Cichy came on to start four games and ended up with 60 tackles, eight tackles for loss and five sacks, including three on back-to-back-back plays against USC in the Holiday Bowl.

Wisconsin opens the season on Sept. 3 against LSU at Lambeau Field.