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Wisconsin Football Defensive Grades: Nick Herbig continues dominance

Nick Herbig led the way for the Badgers defense, recording two sacks, while filling the gaps well in the run game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Illinois State at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Illinois State Redbirds 38-0 to begin their 2022 campaign, cruising to victory after a sluggish start in which the defense committed penalties to extend drives, but responded well with turnovers.

Defensive Line: B+

The Badgers' defensive line had a strong finish in the run game, allowing just 57 yards on 26 carries.

However, the unit struggled in the first quarter in comparison to their talent, as running back Cole Mueller rushed for gains of eight and 14 yards, while quarterback Zach Annexstad had a six-yard gain for a first down, and running back Wenkers Wright had carries of four and five yards.

Additionally, standout defensive tackle Keeanu Benton committed an ill-timed roughing-the-passer penalty on a 3rd & 5, which extended the drive for the Redbirds.

The defense will need to start stronger if they want to stay off the field, which requires more discipline and better initial run defense.

In good news, defensive lineman Rodas Johnson recorded a tackle-for-loss, contributing to the good defensive numbers for the Badgers.

Linebackers: A

The linebackers were arguably the strongest group of the bunch for the Badgers, as star pass-rusher Nick Herbig recorded two sacks, while new starters Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner led the team in tackles.

Njongmeta had a team-high eight tackles, including a tackle-for-loss, while Turner had seven tackles, a sack, and two tackles-for-loss.

With Tatum Grass and Jake Cheney, who recorded three tackles, in the fold as well, the Badgers could have their newest group of strong interior linebackers stepping up.

The only question at the position from Saturday’s game was outside linebacker C.J. Goetz, who didn’t have a great fit on a running play, while also reacting slowly on a wheel route from a running back that resulted in an easy first down conversion on third down.

However, backup linebacker Darryl Peterson did flash in limited time, as the redshirt freshman stayed disciplined on a screen pass, not biting on the fake handoff and stopping the play for a loss of four yards.

He could be a candidate to start opposite Herbig as the season continues if he keeps up his level of play.

Cornerbacks: B-

The cornerbacks had an up-and-down performance, recording a few splash plays, such as Jay Shaw’s pass breakup near the sideline and Samar Melvin’s pass breakup on a deep Zach Annexstad attempt.

But, there were several times where the cornerbacks were punished downfield, specifically over the top on the sidelines, as all three of Wisconsin’s starting defensive backs just weren’t tall enough to make the plays.

In the second quarter, Ricardo Hallman, the redshirt freshman who started in place of the injured Alexander Smith, was burned deep on a 35-yard pass to Daniel Sobkowicz. Later in the quarter, Cedrick Dort was beaten by Jalen Carr over the middle for 26 yards.

Then, in the second half, top cornerback Jay Shaw was spun around by Brock Annexstad on a 23-yard comeback route, moving the chains.

While Wisconsin’s lack of height at the position clearly didn't deteriorate the outcome of Saturday’s game, they may be more susceptible to bigger against more talented, taller receivers.

Safeties: A

John Torchio was the star of the game, recording a school-record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, as well as a sack.

The leader of the secondary was seen in the slot covering wideouts, in the two-high shells, and as a Blitzer, and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard doesn’t believe much will change without starter Hunter Wohler, who’s currently out with a leg injury.

The backup safeties played well, as Utah transfer Kamo’i Latu recorded a pass-breakup on a nice hit over the middle, while redshirt sophomore Preston Zachman broke cleanly on a pass outside the numbers for an interception off quarterback Zack Annexsstad.

With a revamped cornerback room and the injury to Wohler, several safeties may see extended roles in Week 2.