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Wisconsin’s “next men up” key to its success in 2016

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After suffering numerous injuries, Wisconsin is still in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers have seen more than their fair share of injuries during the 2016 football season.

Consider the long list of injuries, starting with sophomore linebackers Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards.

Edwards was held out of their season-opening matchup with LSU and was limited against Akron before returning to full-time duty against Georgia State. Orr was lost for the season on the first play from scrimmage in the win against the Tigers.

Redshirt senior Vince Biegel missed Wisconsin's games against Michigan and Ohio State with a fractured foot. Then in his first game back, leading tackler, redshirt junior Jack Cichy tore his pectoral muscle, causing him to miss the remainder of the season.

Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) has also been without their starting nose tackle, sophomore Olive Sagapolu, for the last two games and will be without him again this weekend when they travel to Northwestern (4-4, 3-2).

The Badgers may face the Wildcats without redshirt junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt, their leader in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (7), who is questionable with a shoulder injury.

However, even with this laundry list of injuries, Wisconsin still sports the third-best scoring defense in the nation (14.6 points per game), is ninth in the country in total defense (301.1 yards per game) and has only allowed 10 touchdowns in eight games. Throughout the course of an injury-plagued season, the Badgers have looked to its bench to weather the storm.

Without Orr and Edwards against LSU, Wisconsin turned to redshirt sophomore Ryan Connelly, who picked up seven tackles (four solo), to help the Badgers’ defense, limiting the Tigers to one offensive touchdown.

Connelly had played sparingly throughout the last six games, until filling in once again for Cichy, against Iowa and Nebraska.

Connelly registered 11 (seven solo) tackles, including two tackles for loss and two pass break ups, to help Wisconsin earn an overtime victory over the previously undefeated, Cornhuskers. Connelly's big game was enough to earn him Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors, which he shared with Indiana’s Marcus Oliver.

Redshirt junior Leon Jacobs also played a big role in Wisconsin's win over Nebraska, matching Connelly's team-high 11 tackles (seven solo).

Jacobs began his career at UW as an outside linebacker and moved inside as a sophomore. Prior to the 2016 season, he moved to fullback but has been pulled back to defense to fill the holes made by injuries.

Redshirt junior Garret Dooley has recorded 31 total tackles this season (19 solo) -- 25 (17 solo) in the last four games alone. He has also registered all of his 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in the past four games.

Sticking in line with the trend of young outside linebackers filling in for veterans, redshirt freshman Zach Baun registered a career-high six tackles (three solo), including one for a loss against Ohio State with Biegel still on the shelf.

Provided Watt is unable to go on Saturday, Wisconsin will rely on Dooley and Baun to fill in for one of the most dominant defensive players in the Big Ten yet again.

With the 340-pound Sagapolu out, Wisconsin has turned to junior defensive end, Conor Sheehy and true freshman Garrett Rand. Even though Sheehy is considerably smaller than Sagapolu at 288 pounds, he has anchored the defensive line for the Badgers. Sheehy registered two tackles in each of the previous two games, manning the middle for Wisconsin.

The injuries haven't been limited to Wisconsin’s defense. UW has had to look to their bench on special teams as well, calling on a former walk-on who had never attempted a field goal at any level of organized football, when junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone was lost for the season after undergoing back surgery.

In his absence, senior Andrew Endicott is six of nine on field goal attempts and 10-of-12 on extra point attempts in five games.

Junior defensive back and kick returner Natrell Jamerson has also been on the shelf since injuring his leg against Akron. In his absence, redshirt senior running back Dare Ogunbowale — who has also filled in on offense due to injuries to Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal — has averaged 21.3 yards per return.

Making up for Jamerson’s loss in the secondary, junior Lubern Figaro has regained confidence at cornerback and filled in admirably as the team’s lead nickel back. Jamerson is still questionable for Saturday's tilt but should be nearing his return.

Wisconsin is currently in the midst of a four-game losing streak at Ryan Field, having last won there in 1999. If they are to exorcise the demons out of Evanston with a win and continue their path to a Big Ten West division title, they’ll have to rely on the next man up. It’s served them well so far.