The Wisconsin Badgers are set to play against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in Week 6, fresh off an early bye week, looking to remain undefeated in conference play after cruising past the Purdue Boilermakers 38-17 in Week 4.
In their last outing, the Badgers were able to pull away in the second half, courtesy of a forced turnover and some late touchdowns, leading to their third three-score victory of the season.
However, during the win, there was one puzzling question: where was top linebacker Maema Njongmeta?
Njongmeta was active for the game and wasn't listed on the injury report, but played just one snap against Purdue after playing 56, 60, and 65 snaps through the first three games.
With the bye week following Wisconsin’s 38-17 win, there weren't opportunities to ask about the linebacker’s disappearance in Week 4, but head coach Luke Fickell finally addressed the topic during his weekly press conference on Monday, sharing that the decision was more situational.
“Sometimes, in some of those situations in particular, Purdue spread us out, Fickell said. “We felt like it was a situation [where] Jake Chaney was in a little bit better role in some of the spread stuff that we were getting as much as they were trying to extend us outside the box.”
Fickell also alluded to the issues with substitutions, given the way Purdue moved offensively, leaving linebackers Jake Chaney and Jordan Turner out on the field for the majority of the game.
“And it became really difficult in that game in particular to roll just on how much they were not giving you opportunities to sub and do some things and just the way that the game was going with them playing.”
However, the head coach did reiterate the team’s belief that Wisconsin has three starting-caliber inside linebackers, while acknowledging the need to ensure that each has an involvement in the gameplan.
“But again, I think that we feel like we’ve got three starting linebackers inside and some way, somehow we can roll those guys and do a better job at making sure they’re all involved in what it is that we’re doing.”
The decision to play Njongmeta sparingly was puzzling, given his impact when on the field, the previous snap counts, and the fact that Wisconsin’s linebackers were up and down against Purdue, specifically in the run game on crucial downs.
Additionally, the Badgers were on defense for 11 drives, providing ample opportunity for Njongmeta to see the field, while Turner and Chaney each played a season-high 71 snaps, a tiring experience against the up-tempo Purdue offense.
Perhaps the rotation changes this week with the Badgers coming off a bye week, but it was an interesting decision to rotate the linebackers as they did in Week 4 against Purdue.