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Notebook: Defense, youth movement among storylines from Wisconsin’s win vs. Rutgers

D’Cota Dixon and T.J. Edwards break down the Badgers’ performance on Saturday.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON — It wasn’t always pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers came out of Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday with a 6–3 record (4–2 Big Ten) following a victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

The Badgers marched down the field on their first drive for a touchdown following a six-play, 65-yard drive capped off by Jonathan Taylor’s first of three scores on the day.

However, the real storyline of the first half occurred on the last play, when Alex Hornibrook suffered a head injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the game. Fortunately for Jack Coan, who started last weekend’s loss to Northwestern, he wasn’t pressed to throw early.

Wisconsin scored on its first two drives of the second half, both without a pass attempt. Taylor scored on touchdown runs of 38 and 18 yards, and the Badgers jumped ahead to a 24–3 lead and never really look back, finishing off the Scarlet Knights by a final score of 31–17.

Badgers’ defense improves, gives up yards

The defense eventually gave up 17 points, but for the most part this game was completely under control from the outset.

Wisconsin’s defense, in particular the linebackers, beat and battered Rutgers’ true-freshman starter Artur Sitkowski from the outset. While the sack numbers didn’t end up where the Badgers would like, the cumulative pressure was undeniable, as Sitkowski grew more and more gun-shy as the game went on.

Multiple hits by Ryan Connelly and others from T.J. Edwards and Zack Baun took their toll on the freshman, and for the most part forced Rutgers to play horizontally rather than threaten Wisconsin vertically.

However, the Badgers’ aggression came back to bite them a few times throughout the game.

“They hit us two or three times for pretty good gains, they’re a good screen team,” Edwards said.

Rutgers sophomore Raheem Blackshear ended up with eight catches for 162 yards—nearly half of the Scarlet Knights’ total yardage—and a touchdown.

“Most of the time we’ve got guys in coverage [on screens], but we were very downhill today, and they had some of the best backs we’ll see all year,” Edwards said. “[Blackshear] is special, he’s a really special player, so we knew they would give us some trouble, but we’ll get that stuff cleaned up for next week.”

D’Cota Dixon also talked about defending screens.

“You’ve just got to rally to the ball. Whether you miss or make the tackle, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got hats pursuing the ball, you’re not alone. As long as you make them stop, even if you miss the tackle, you make them stop, pursuit is coming. That could be a turnover from the back, a fumble, anything. [Blackshear] is a good back, hats off to him. We knew he was their go-to guy.”

Youth movement up front

Wisconsin started three defensive linemen on Saturday, with true freshman Bryson Williams making his first in place of the injured Olive Sagapolu.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure there wouldn’t be a big dro-poff with Olive being out,” Williams said.

Williams didn’t record a tackle but helped open up several lanes for Edwards and Connelly to blitz through on third downs.

Kayden Lyles and Matt Henningsen have both started all nine games at defensive end, but the sheer youth along the defensive line was impossible to ignore, following the theme of the Badgers’ roster. Seventy-nine players are third-year sophomores or younger, a staggering number for a team that doesn’t turn over its roster as much as teams like Alabama or Ohio State who lose several players each season as early entrants into the NFL Draft. Lyles also did not register a tackle, as Rutgers attacked the perimeter of the field. Henningsen added three tackles.

D’Cota Dixon returns, embraces leadership role

One of the most outgoing personalities on the team, whether conversing with teammates or with reporters, the fifth-year senior safety is rarely short on words. He’s had a chance to speak a lot to the young safeties he has with him.

Scott Nelson, a redshirt freshman, was the season-opening starter at free safety. He was then replaced by Eric Burrell, a redshirt sophomore. The Badgers have also gotten contributions at safety from true freshman Reggie Pearson.

“I take pride in it [being a leader], I take pride in being able to help anyone on my team, especially because I know they all want it, I’ve been in that position before,” Dixon said. “I’ve wanted to be the next [Mike] Caputo, so I’ve tried to set a standard and even if you don’t have success, it’s about how you respond.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the team. It’s not about about you, what you can do, what you’re going to do. It’s about the team. There’s a lot of learning to go around, but they’re getting better.”