MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The rocks in the middle of the Wisconsin defense have had to deal with ripples around them on the field.
Inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly remain steady playmakers as injuries shuffle the rest of the lineup.
Next up is a game without Olive Sagapolu, who has a right arm injury, when the Badgers host Rutgers on Saturday. The space-eating nose tackle regularly draws double teams that free up Edwards and Connelly to make plays.
“Just the main thing we can do is keep guys confident, encourage guys,” Edwards said. “It’s one of those things where coaches are putting those guys on the field for a reason, and they trust in them so we have to do the same.”
Sagapolu’s replacement will be freshman Bryson Williams, giving the Badgers (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) an all-freshman starting front alongside ends Matt Henningsen and Kayden Lyles — two players who have also stepped into starting roles because of injuries.
The defensive line last year was stocked with experienced, athletic seniors. The changes up front are among the reasons why the Badgers’ typically stout run defense ranks just 12th in the Big Ten this year (170.4 yards per game).
Through it all, Edwards and Connelly still make big plays.
Edwards, the runner-up last year for the Butkus Award for the nation’s best linebacker, has a team-high three sacks and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Connelly, a Butkus Award semifinalist this year, has a team-high 57 tackles, including a career-high 14 last week.
The good news for the banged-up Badgers is that they have a good chance to win again on Saturday, after a loss last week to Northwestern knocked them out of first in the West Division. Rutgers is the lowest-scoring team (15.1 points) among the 129 major college football schools.
The only winless school in Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights (1-7, 0-5) are coming off a bye week. They can take some solace from a closer-than-expected, 18-15 loss at home two weeks ago to Northwestern.
The Wildcats then went out and defeated Wisconsin 31-17 last week at Ryan Field.
“I’ve said probably over and over and over, and nobody really wants to probably believe me, is I don’t think we’re that far away,” Rutgers coach Chris Ash said.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been cleared to return from the concussion protocol after missing the loss to Northwestern. The drop-off from Hornibrook, a third-year starter, to sophomore Jack Coan, who was making his first collegiate start, was evident. The Badgers didn’t have much of a medium-to-long passing game, and a botched handoff to Jonathan Taylor led to a turnover.
The punting job is in good hands at Rutgers with sophomore Adam Korsak. He was added this week to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s best college punter. Korsak, who has averaged 43.0 yards per attempt, boomed a school-record 79-yard punt two weeks against Northwestern.
Giving up 18 points to Northwestern represented progress for Rutgers, which allowed an average of 40.8 points over its first six losses. Ash, a former defensive coordinator at Ohio State, has taken a larger role in defensive planning over the last couple games.
“The calls are the calls. I don’t care who makes the calls,” Ash said. “It’s about the preparation. It’s about the attitude and the energy we bring defensively.”
The Badgers will play again without safety Scott Nelson, though the other starting safety, D’Cota Dixon, was listed as questionable. There have been growing pains all year in the defensive backfield, which also has freshmen Faion Hicks and Rachad Wildgoose starting at cornerback. Still, Wisconsin has allowed just one passing touchdown and made six interceptions over its last three games.
A Badgers team that was a chic pick to make the College Football Playoff at the beginning of the season now needs help just to win the West. Coach Paul Chryst just wants his players to keep focusing on small steps and winning the next game.
“We’re all mature,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “We know what’s going on, we’ll bounce back. We’ll be all right.”
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