MADISON — The tales of former walk-ons stepping up for the Wisconsin Badgers are as wide and long as some of the holes their offensive linemen open each weekend in the fall.
Enter redshirt senior safety Evan Bondoc, who made his first career start on Saturday and proceeded to significantly contribute to No. 23 Wisconsin’s 49–20 win over the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Stepping up in place of the injured D’Cota Dixon, Scott Nelson, and Reggie Pearson, Bondoc recorded a career-high five tackles (1.5 for loss) plus his first career interception and a forced fumble on a defensive unit that contained the Illini in a solid victory.
“There’s a guy that’s been doing a ton for this program,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “To see him get his opportunity, then do well with it, that’s awesome.”
Bondoc came into Saturday’s game having played in 30 career games and recorded nine tackles. He redshirted during the 2014 season and proceeded to play in one, nine, and 14 games the following three years.
On Saturday, with the injuries to the three aforementioned safeties, the moment came for him to start.
“Just trusting it and letting it go, and just playing and have fun,” Bondoc said. “It’s something that coach [Jim] Leonhard talks about all the time, just trusting it and when you’re out there, just go all out and don’t look back. Go have fun and make plays.
“It was a lot of fun today.”
Chryst said that he thought Bondoc “temperament-wise” seemed like himself.
“‘Bondie’ has worked a ton,” Chryst said. “You don’t just get ready for this opportunity last week or this week. It’s been stuff he’s been doing for his whole career here. Like I said, it was fun, and our players appreciate ‘Bondie.’ When he does make plays, not just in helping us win, but just for his sake, a lot of people are excited.”
Several Badgers in the secondary, particularly younger players, have been called upon in baptism-by-fire situations this season. When it came to the mindset of being prepared for the opportunity presented before him last weekend, Bondoc looked beyond himself.
“It’s something that I think we do a really good job of as a group and as a DB room,” Bondoc said. “We’re all pretty cohesive and we all try to work together to do the best we can to have everyone prepared and ready to play.
“D’Cota’s the leader of the room and his big preaching point is standards. We want to keep that standard. We’ve been good the last couple of years, and I think that’s [what] we’re trying to continue to do that.”
Though the forced fumble in the second quarter did not register as one of the five turnovers Wisconsin forced on Saturday, it stunted Illinois’s momentum inside UW territory. Wide receiver Dominic Stanley took a handoff off of what appeared to be a variation of a jet sweep when Bondoc came up to knock the ball out.
“I was just going to set the edge and at that point, the ground was pretty slippery,” Bondoc said. “There was a lot of snow. We knew the ball was going to be loose, and that’s something we always try to do as a defense—if they’re carrying it loose, try to punch it out. Happened to get a hand on it, and it popped out.”
Though Illinois recovered the ball on that first-down play, one snap later inside linebacker Jack Sanborn forced a fumble that Chris Orr ultimately fell on to swing possession back to the Badgers.
Later in the second quarter, Bondoc got in on the turnover party for Wisconsin. On a 3rd-and-8 from the Illinois 22, quarterback AJ Bush lofted a pass that appeared to hang up in the wintry conditions that encompassed Camp Randall Stadium. Bondoc came down with the pick to give Wisconsin’s offense great field position at the Illinois 44.
“I got a good read on it from the post,” Bondoc said. “It kind of floated up in the air and obviously it was snowing and a little windy at that point, so it was kind of hard to read it, but just got in the position and lucky enough to make the play.”
That was the third of Wisconsin’s five turnovers and the second of four in that second quarter. Though his interception did not lead to points, the Badgers capitalized in scoring 21 points off the takeaways.
“As a defense, obviously turnovers are probably the number one thing you’re looking for,” Bondoc said. “We knew that if we got a couple, we’d get some energy rolling. It’s something coach Leonhard [said] before the game, ‘One guy make a play, and then we’ll feed off that and keep rolling and keep rolling and keep rolling.’ I think that’s kind of what happened.”
Wisconsin lists Bondoc as one of nine players who started their careers as walk-ons and went on to earn a scholarship. Last season, he joined kicker P.J. Rosowski as Badgers to do so.
Now with an opportunity to make a start, Bondoc showcased another example of a walk-on stepping up and delivering in telling fashion.
“He’s earned every bit of that,” redshirt senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “A guy who’s worked his butt off to get on any team that he can—special teams, defense—he’s always been super reliable. When he got his shot, I was super excited for him to see what he was doing out there and just making plays, man.
“I told him, ‘Hey, I’m going out with you tonight, man. I’m with you tonight, big dog.’”