Wisconsin's Battered Defense Striving For Growth

Wisconsin's Battered Defense Striving For Growth

Football

Wisconsin's Battered Defense Striving For Growth

EVANSTON, Ill. – Even as more of his defensive teammates hobble off the practice field and into the trainer’s room, inside linebacker Ryan Connelly remains the eternal optimist.

There’s no question that UW’s defense has struggled to maintain the extraordinarily high bar it set for itself over recent years due to the high amount of turnover this season. However, Connelly looks at the defense personnel – now mostly comprised of young, inexperienced, talented players – as a unit not willing to accept a level of mediocrity.

“Each week we are learning stuff we need to get better at,” Connelly said. “What Coach Chryst says a lot, an encouraging sign after games, is we still need to practice. There’s always something we can get better at. Guys are getting hurt so young guys are coming in more and more. Seeing how they are improving each week is cool.”

The injury bug has been easy to see. Beginning the season on the injured list, defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk will miss his third straight game this weekend with a leg injury. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel missed or was noticeably limited in three games, hurting UW’s ability to rush from the edge.

Strong safety D’Cota Dixon has missed the last two weeks with a leg injury and remains questionable, while fellow starter – free safety Scott Nelson – will have missed nearly three full games because of a suspension or a leg injury.

Cornerbacks Faion Hicks (two games), Caesar Williams (one) and Deron Harrell (out this week) have also missed time, a reason UW has started nine different players in the secondary through seven games and while it’s been hard for the unit to develop a sound rhythm.

It’s hard to see through some of the recent disappointments, but there have been steps forward. After allowing 407 yards in a win over Nebraska, Wisconsin’s secondary dropped that number to 124 passing yards against Michigan. And while the Wolverines ran for 320 yards against UW’s front, UW squeezed that number down to 210 last week against Illinois.

Again, not great numbers by Wisconsin’s lofty standards, but steps in the right direction.

“We have a lot to work on,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I’m not going to be happy when we give up 500 yards of offense. There’s a lot of things we can learn from … Now it’s about putting it into action. It’s great to learn the lesson on Sunday, write it on paper and check the box, but it’s a lot of work that goes into correcting.”

How Wisconsin has handled its homework will be on full display tomorrow afternoon, as the Badgers (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) face a critical Big Ten West matchup at Ryan Field against Northwestern (4-3, 4-1). The Wildcats don’t have a dynamic running offense that compares to Michigan or even Illinois, but Northwestern has a veteran quarterback in Clayton Thorson (176-of-288 attempts, 1,905 yards, nine touchdowns) who has three of the top 11 players in the Big Ten in terms of receptions per game.

It’s a strong test, but Connelly can point to UW starting to find a way to put more pressure on offenses.

Comparing the first four games to the last three games, Wisconsin is averaging 1.9 more sacks, 1.9 more quarterback hurries, two more tackles per loss and 1.8 more turnovers per game. In last Saturday’s 49-20 win over Illinois, the Badgers forced five first-half turnovers (their most in one game in nearly three years) that turned into 21 points.

“You can make it tough on quarterbacks, even though you aren’t sacking them, just by getting them out of their comfort zone and moving them off their spot,” Connelly said. “I think the biggest number is we need to work on is missed tackles, not just on the quarterback but in space in general.”

Under head coach Paul Chryst, Wisconsin is 19-2 (.905) vs. the Big Ten West Division and has won 16 straight games over West Division foes, dating back to Nov. 28, 2015. A big reason for that is UW’s defense giving only 13.5 points per game and never more than 21 points.

And with questions surrounding the health of quarterback Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin’s defense will need to deliver again, no matter which players are healthy enough to play.

“There’s nothing to save you on the road,” Leonhard said. “You can’t rely on the crowd. You’re not going to get many cheap false start penalties or holding penalties because a guy is late off the ball. You’ve just got to execute. We’ve had some very talented guys that got after people. Right now we’re searching a little bit because of the injuries and the inconsistencies. We’re trying to get guys to push through that.”

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