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Evaluating Wisconsin’s top performers on defense through four games

Inside the up-and-down performance of the young Badgers defense.

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

The No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers will return from their bye week rested as they prepare to take on a winless Nebraska Cornhuskers program led by Scott Frost next Saturday night inside Camp Randall Stadium.

In this season’s first two games, Wisconsin’s defense looked stout against Western Kentucky and New Mexico, but the last two games have showed a unit still young in experience.

BYU fooled Wisconsin for a trick play touchdown pass and gashed the unit for two key 40-yard runs in the 24–21 upset inside Camp Randall a couple of weekends ago. Against Iowa the next week, the Hawkeyes successfully utilized tight ends T.J. Hockenson (125 yards on three receptions) and Noah Fant (two touchdown catches) while racking up 404 total yards.

The numbers, as with the offense, show a team that has been solid and made plays at times, but also can improve:

  • Scoring defense: 14.5 points per game
  • Total defense: 307.8 yards per game
  • Rush defense: 135.0 yards per game
  • Passing yards allowed: 178.2 yards per game
  • Third-down defense: 19-of-39 (38.8 percent)

We’ll see who steps up in six days vs. Nebraska, but through four games, here’s who stood out on defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit.

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

Ryan Connelly

On arguably one of the top inside linebacking groups in the nation, the former walk-on possesses the speed and downhill ability to get into the backfield early and disrupt plays. The redshirt senior ranks second on the team in tackles (22) and leads the defense in tackles for loss (4.5).

On Iowa’s first drive of the second half, the Hawkeyes marched down the field thanks to a huge 45-yard connection from Nate Stanley to Hockenson to set up a 1st-and-Goal from the Wisconsin 6-yard line. The defense held Iowa to just a field goal, thanks in part to Connelly’s third-down tackle for loss on running back Ivory Kelly-Martin.

Scott Nelson

The redshirt freshman won the starting safety job opposite redshirt senior D’Cota Dixon and has shown in flashes his potential as a ballhawk-like playmaker. He recorded his first career interception against New Mexico on a key drive with the Lobos driving in Wisconsin territory, and he is currently third on the team in tackles (20) and leads the unit in pass break-ups (four).

We’ll touch more on the secondary later, but the safety positions seem in solid hands as long as Dixon and Nelson stay healthy.

D’Cota Dixon

He admitted he made the wrong call on BYU’s wide receiver option pass that resulted in a long touchdown, but the redshirt senior statistically has had a very solid final year. He leads the team in tackles (24) and like Connelly, T.J. Edwards, and Olive Sagapolu, is a leader of this defensive unit.

I know we’re talking defense, but he also caused and recovered a fumble on special teams thanks to his ... uh ... posterior, so kudos to that.

T.J. Edwards

Second on the team in tackles for loss (3.5) and fourth in tackles overall (19), the redshirt senior and team captain came down with a key interception late in the fourth quarter in Wisconsin’s win against Iowa. He, like Connelly, is also tied for second on the team behind Andrew Van Ginkel in quarterback hurries (two).

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s talk about: The defense as a whole

It did feel like a tale of two defenses through the first four games, and working through this list compared to the offensive standouts, the number of players popping out on this unit seemed less.

However, this is still a growing set of players. On the defensive line, there are three redshirt freshmen in the two-deep at end while Sagapolu anchors the middle (for that matter, with Bryson Williams, four freshmen— true or redshirt—find themselves on the first- or second-team depth chart).

At outside linebacker, Van Ginkel has popped out, but his injury against BYU stunted potential pass-rush opportunities against the Cougars, and he was utilized in certain situations against Iowa. Wisconsin only has three sacks on the season (though it has accumulated 11 quarterback hurries overall), so how the pass rush evolves will be key in these final eight regular-season games.

It appeared Faion Hicks had a rough game against Iowa, but the cornerbacks are still young with Hicks and Deron Harrell (both redshirt freshmen) starting last week in Iowa City with Madison Cone and Caesar Williams (both sophomores) playing often as well.

Despite losing 42–28 to Purdue at Memorial Stadium yesterday afternoon, the Huskers’ offense gained 582 yards of offense and over seven yards per play against the Boilermakers.

It should be a big test for Wisconsin’s defense as it continues to form its identity in facing a dual-threat quarterback in true freshman Adrian Martinez and playmakers like Devine Ozigbo, J.D. Spielman, and Stanley Morgan, Jr.