Unprecedented expectations faced the Wisconsin Badgers as the 2018 season drew near.
In their opening act, they did not disappoint, turning away a young and hungry Western Kentucky team by the comfortable margin of 34–3. What seemed to be a feast-or-famine offense early in the game worked itself into the meat-grinder it can be, holding the ball for over 34 minutes.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Despite all of the turnover on the defensive line—losing over 150 games of playing experience between three defensive ends, and in the secondary, losing three starters—the engine that drives the car is still running.
T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly are arguably the heart and soul of the Badger defense, and with all of the changes around them, they’ve been a steadying presence on a defense with varying levels of experience throughout the roster.
“Having those great leaders in our defense, it’s going to test us outside,” redshirt sophomore cornerback Caesar Williams said. “Teams are going to want to run the ball, but when they see guys like that in the middle, they think maybe we do have to pass it, maybe we do have to try to beat them on the edge. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
“You always know that T.J. is going to know what he’s doing,” redshirt freshman free safety Scott Nelson added. “They do a lot of good things for us.”
Edwards tied Nelson for the team led in tackles Friday night, with each notching seven (five solo, one for loss). Connelly wasn’t far behind, with five tackles (three solo, 1.5 for loss) and a sack.
“I think it’s one of those things where we’ve seen a lot, we’ve been in a lot of difficult situations, so I think being able to communicate with everyone and keep everyone on the same page helps a lot,” Edwards said.
Jake Ferguson makes immediate impact
It didn’t take long for Jake Ferguson to make his mark on the Wisconsin offense. In his first collegiate game, the redshirt freshman tight end had four catches for 43 yards, all for first downs.
“He was good,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I thought, you know, what you appreciate is that he was who we saw in camp, right? Because you’re talking about his first game action, and that’s not always the case.”
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook connected with seven different receivers in the win. Ferguson’s four receptions tied with Kendric Pryor for second-most among the group, with A.J. Taylor leading all players with five catches for 85 yards.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunities in the tight end group, and coach [Mickey] Turner pounded that all week, that it was our turn to step up,” Ferguson said.
The younger brother of former Badger safety Joe Ferguson and grandson of athletic director Barry Alvarez credited senior Zander Neuville for helping him along.
“He hasn’t missed a thing—a meeting, a walkthrough, a practice, nothing,” Ferguson said. “He’s been there every step of the way and that’s been a big help for me as I transition.”
Ferguson was used almost exclusively in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) but was also complimented on his work in the run game by Chryst.
Taiwan Deal takes advantage of opportunity
At one time, Taiwan Deal was considered a large part of the future of the Wisconsin running game. As a redshirt freshman, he rushed for over 500 yards and six touchdowns. However, since then, a barrage of injuries has slowed the powerful runner from DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland.
A former Maryland Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Deal rushed for 53 yards on eight carries Friday night and had a 10-yard reception early in the first quarter to get his feet wet.
Chryst expressed how he felt about Deal’s opportunity to play on Friday.
“It was great, I know it meant a lot to him.
“I thought Taiwan ran hard, I thought he was patient, and he ran behind his pads well. A lot of times, when you’re back at it and you’re excited to go—sometimes for a back, or really most players—you lose your patience and I thought he had good patience.”
A (less?) big Wisconsin offensive line?
Wisconsin’s offensive line is rarely called trim, but that’s exactly how left tackle Jon Dietzen and left guard Michael Deiter looked after their first game of the season.
“It kind of happened by itself,” Deiter said. “What I did was when I got surgery, I wanted to lose some of [the weight]. I’ve always played heavy, which is fine because I could still move, but if I can be as powerful as I was at 315 [pounds] or 310 instead of 326, then why not do that? It’ll help with endurance and stuff like that.”
For Dietzen, who moved from left guard to left tackle, shedding weight also felt important.
“The biggest approach was going to tackle, having to be lighter on my feet,” he said. “I was also trying to get down during last year, but it’s a bit harder during the season.”
Dietzen started 12 of his 13 games at left guard last season, battling injuries throughout.
“It’s still a bit of a surprise every time I go out there at tackle,” Dietzen joked. “It’s been an adjustment working with the different types of pass sets, getting that vertical set at tackle instead of the different sets you take inside, but it’s a work in progress. Getting better every day.”