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Thursday, February 29, 2024
After an injury ended Zack Baun's 2017 season before it started and a disappointing 2018 season, the senior linebacker has played a central role in UW's top-ranked defense in 2019. 

After an injury ended Zack Baun's 2017 season before it started and a disappointing 2018 season, the senior linebacker has played a central role in UW's top-ranked defense in 2019. 

Badgers looking for depleted defense to step up against Michigan to keep season goals within reach

Following their 24-21 loss to BYU, T.J. Edwards and other Badgers players declared that all their preseason goals were still achievable and right there in front of them. Wisconsin responded with wins over Big Ten West foes Iowa and Nebraska to get its season back on track.

Now, those goals will be put on the line Saturday night, as the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers (2-0, 4-1) travel to Ann Arbor for a showdown with the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines (3-0, 5-1) under the lights.

The Wolverines boast one key difference from the Badgers’ 24-10 win in last year’s matchup — quarterback Shea Patterson. Patterson has racked up 1,187 passing yards with 10 touchdowns and just three interceptions through six games this season. In comparison, three Michigan quarterbacks combined for 2,226 yards and nine touchdowns with ten interceptions in 13 games in 2017.

“We just have to keep him contained,” Olive Sagapolu said. “We know that he can make a lot of plays with his feet, but we also know that he has great arm strength — keeping him contained, keeping him in the pocket, forcing him to do what he can under duress.”

Take a look at UW’s injury report, and you’ll see a list riddled with defensive players. Cornerbacks Deron Harrell and Caesar Williams and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel are listed as questionable, while defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk has already been ruled out.

Harrell started for an injured Williams against Nebraska, but picked up an upper body injury in the game, paving the way for freshman Rachad Wildgoose to get critical reps. UW’s pass defense struggled against Nebraska freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who threw for 384 yards and two touchdowns.

“When you had a game that didn’t quite go the way you expected, putting up a lot of points and yards on you, to bounce back is something we preach to these kids all the time,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “At this point of the season, nobody is healthy - everyone is pushing through it. It’s not an excuse. We have to get better and find ways to have success on Saturdays. I liked our approach this week and our guys are excited to go up to Ann Arbor.”

“Our guys learned a lot from it,” Leonhard continued. “We don’t know who’s going to play, whether it’s corners or safeties. We’ve got some injuries, we’ve got some guys battling through some stuff… guys are going to have to step up in bigger roles than they’ve had earlier this season.”

Adding to their list of absences, safety Scott Nelson was flagged for targeting near the end of the third quarter against Nebraska. By rule, Nelson was ejected for the remainder of the game and is suspended for the first half against Michigan. In his place, redshirt sophomore Eric Burrell will make his first career start.

“We came here for a reason.” Burrell said. “The coaches know we’ve all got the advantage of playing division one football. Obviously we’re at a big school. I think they trust every last one of us. We just want to go out there and have some fun.”

With a depleted secondary vulnerable through the air, the Badgers will need stepped-up contributions from the pass rush. Wisconsin’s defense averaged at least two sacks a game in 2017. This season, the Badgers entered last week’s game against Nebraska with just three sacks in four games.

The defense made strides last week in pressuring Martinez, accumulating seven quarterback hurries and two sacks, both by Edwards. The Badgers will be without Loudermilk, one of their top pass rushers, but with the lack of experience and depth in their backfield, UW must figure out a way to pressure Patterson to have success on Saturday.

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“We’re going to need it.” Leonhard said. “Just trying to get the whole thing to come together - I think a lot of guys are improving. A guy like Zach Baun just continues to knock the rust off. You see more in the pass rush and the physicality, obviously if we can get Andrew [Van Ginkel] back on the field more - that changes us. We’re getting healthier, we need to continue to push with a lot of these guys and grow from these game situations, and I think we’re ready to do that.” 

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