The Wisconsin Badgers entered the bye week with a 3-1 record following a 38-17 victory over the Purdue Boilermakers in a game where the favorites started fast and held a two-score lead for a majority of the game.
While the Badgers looked in command for large chunks of the game, there were two thoughts that clouded fans’ minds after the game: the unfortunate injury to running back Chez Mellusi, which was revealed to be a season-ended, and the mysterious disappearance of top linebacker Maema Njongmeta, who played just one snap during the game.
After seeing snap counts of 56, 60, and 65 through the first three games, Njongmeta’s lack of playing time in Week 4 led to a number of questions: Did he break a team rule? Was he injured? What was the reason?
Given the timing of the bye week, reporters were unable to field answers to those questions until Tuesday when the linebacker was requested for media availability.
The reasoning for the benching? It was exactly what head coach Luke Fickell shared with reporters: the matchup.
“We had a plan going in for the game,” Njongmeta said, “and there had been talks about a rotation and kind of as the game went on, it turned into more of a space game, and Coach and I kind of talked and he was like, ‘all right, I want to keep [Jake] Chaney out there for now.’”
How did the linebacker take the situation?
“I understood. The thing I really love about the team and the [linebacker] room that we have is depth. Although I wasn’t physically out there, I saw myself in those plays from the preparation standpoint, from kind of the sideline adjustments that we were making.”
“That’s my boy over there,” Njongmeta said in reference to Chaney. “But, I was part of it the whole way, even though people didn’t necessarily see me out there.”
The linebacker confirmed that a team rule wasn't broken, nor was he injured during the game.
“I mean, look, fielded a million questions about this from friends or whatnot. Friends, family, I mean, the whole wild world. End of the day, I didn’t break a team rule, in case people were wondering,” Njongmeta said.
“Didn’t break a team rule, that did come up. People were wondering. My mom called me and she was like, did you break a team rule? Like, my mom loves Twitter.”
Instead, Njongmeta took a subtle shot at those questioning the decision, sharing his support for the coaching staff and their decisions to try and win games.
“I think, you know, it’s one of those things that people will always look from the outside in and make their judgment calls, make their decisions. They’ll quarterback from the couch. And at the end of the day, we have a staff.”
“We have a team dedicated to making sure that this program is the best place possible moving forward. And so they’re going to make the decisions for that. And as a player, as captain, my role is to embrace those decisions, be there for those guys, and embrace my role, be the best at it, no matter what that role is on that given day. I’m happy to do that, whatever that looks like.”
Njongmeta approached the situation like a leader, being happy for fellow linebackers Jake Chaney and Jordan Turner to earn more opportunities, while looking to contribute in whatever way he could.
“I think one thing that’s really interesting about team sports is at the end of the day, the best teams win,” Njongmeta said.
During the Purdue game, Njongmeta felt his role was more to be ready for any opportunity and support his teammates, which he embraced.
“And my role this year, having the title of captain, whether I didn’t have it or not, my role this year, I think everyone’s role, the good team is to embrace your role on a given day, a given moment, and be the best at that role,” Njongmeta said. “And at that moment in time, my role was to be there for the guys, be ready in case they needed someone.”
Despite not being a critical factor on the field in Week 4, the linebacker was proud to finish his career undefeated against Purdue.
“And at the end of the day, not letting the human element slip in is kind of critical. I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m perfect, but I think at the end of the day, when you win games, whether your snap count doesn’t matter. When you win games, your snap count doesn’t matter. To be able to walk in away, I love playing at Purdue, never lost one of my college career, and I can finally say that.”
“And to walk away with an emphatic win the way we did, coming out faster, the way the defense played, special teams, offense, you can’t be more happy for your guys in that moment. So I was really happy for the turnout and got records this week. I’m excited for that.”