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Wisconsin Football defensive grades: Is the defense back on track?

Wisconsin’s defense smothered Northwestern’s offense, despite several injuries. Are they back on track?

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers swiftly defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 42-7, as the defense nearly held an opponent scoreless for the second time this season.

As a result, interim head coach Jim Leonhard earned his first career win in a new era for the Badgers following Paul Chryst’s firing early last week after an inexplicable 34-10 loss to Illinois.

Here are the defensive grades for this week:

Defensive Line: B+

Wisconsin’s defensive line was depleted coming into the game, as starting defensive end Isaiah Mullens missed the game with a leg injury.

Additionally, Keeanu Benton suffered an injury of his own during the game, which required him to miss the second half.

Nonetheless, the Badger's defensive line didn’t take a step back, limiting the Northwestern Wildcats to just 2.9 yards per carry, as top running back Evan Hull managed just 13 yards on nine carries.

As a result, Northwestern was forced to implement a quick game, as their offensive line was dominated at the line of scrimmage, which quarterbacks Ryan Hilinski and Brendan Sullivan failed to consistently execute, resulting in just seven offensive points.

Northwestern did compile several drives where they, at least, approached near midfield, but Wisconsin forced three turnovers while keeping the Wildcats’ offense out of the endzone.

Nick Herbig, whose impact was minimal in Week 5, got back on track, recording four pressures and a strip sack on quarterback Brendan Sullivan that forced a turnover in Wisconsin territory.

However, the defensive line committed several penalties, as both Rodas Johnson and Gio Paez were offsides on different plays, and Nick Herbig had a personal foul on the return of a Kamo’i Latu interception.

Overall, the defensive line was able to make an impact, especially in the running game, despite the losses of two starters, hence the B+ grade.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Linebackers: B+

The Badgers switched up their starting linebacker rotation as Jake Chaney and Tatum Grass were inserted in the place of Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner.

It was revealed later that Njongmeta suffered a broken hand, which required him to play with a club, although it was unknown if the injury was the primary reason for the change.

Chaney had been an underrated player in limited time thus far, and arguably looked better than Turner, who had several lapses in coverage in previous weeks.

The backup linebacker took advantage of his opportunity, recording a team-high four pressures, and executing the linebacker blitzes well when his number was called.

Chaney and Grass combined for nine tackles, with the latter also having a tackle for loss with his performance.

It’ll be intriguing whether Chaney will be given the opportunity to build on this performance and get more playing time as the season continues, as he’s been a player deserving of more reps.

Cornerbacks: B

After a week in which he was consistently targeted and beaten, cornerback Jay Shaw was a consistent factor for the Badgers in Week 6, recording a pass breakup, while holding his ground.

The Badgers’ defensive backs held the Northwestern quarterbacks to 22/41 passing for 263 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.

While the Wildcats moved the ball downfield in the passing game, several bigger plays were well-defended, but just good offense, including a 41-yard Bryce Kirtz catch.

Cedrick Dort Jr. recorded two pass-breakups of his own, with the latter one, unfortunately, resulting in a head injury that forced him to depart the game.

Ricardo Hallman continues to be consistent for the Badgers, recording another pass-breakup and being in a good position for the majority of the game, which is all you can ask for, given his size.

The defensive backs continue to struggle occasionally with tackling in space, which has led to big plays for opposing offenses in the quick game, and that needs to be cleaned up.

But, with solid cornerback play after a porous performance in Week 5, the Badgers’ unit earns a B grade.

Safeties: A-

Kamo’i Latu was the star of the game defensively, recording two interceptions, which earned him the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Week award.

Latu is a physical, aggressive player, who will miss tackles himself, but play with a level of intensity that is necessary for a defensive back on this team.

While interceptions for safeties are sometimes regarded to being in the right place at the right time, the Badgers hadn’t been forcing turnovers and Latu’s presence changed that dynamic last weekend, providing extra momentum, which allowed the offense to remain in a rhythm.

Latu’s aggressiveness did lead to an unnecessary roughness penalty on Saturday, which can’t happen moving forward.

Safety John Torchio also worked well near the line of scrimmage, recording two tackles for loss, including one with great anticipation off the edge.

Additionally, Torchio was a factor in the passing game, recording two pass-breakups of his own, showcasing his multi-faceted abilities.

While the Badgers didn’t play their cleanest defensive game, the defensive backs played well, especially when the Wildcats were approaching the goal line.