Badgers defense banged up heading into big game at Michigan
The University of Wisconsin defense found itself drastically shorthanded by the conclusion of its victory over Nebraska on Saturday, and the Badgers may end up in a similar situation entering this week’s game at Michigan.
Four potential starters — defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg), cornerbacks Deron Harrell (head) and Caesar Williams (left leg) and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (right leg) — are listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against the Wolverines, while a fifth, safety Scott Nelson, will miss the first half after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter against the Cornhuskers. Van Ginkel will play but could remain in a limited role.
The Badgers’ biggest worry may be in the secondary, where they have two more starters, safety D’Cota Dixon (right leg) and Faion Hicks (right thumb), who are fully expected to play but may not be 100 percent.
“Just trust what you see,” Dixon said when asked what advice he’ll give UW’s young defensive backs this week. “Trust what you know, trust the game plan, trust the coaches and trust the guys around you. That’s something that can really help you maximize your own potential as a player is when you trust the people around you. It makes you be able to play that much faster.”
Many of those playing alongside Dixon in the back end this week at Michigan Stadium could be experiencing their first taste of a larger role in the Badgers’ defense.
UW coach Paul Chryst said Monday that Eric Burrell will start in place of Nelson. The sophomore safety’s played in 19 games over his career but never started.
“That happens a lot in a season,” Chryst said. “You’ve got to just continue to work, and opportunities will come. You don’t know how. And yet, it’s a pretty good bet that your opportunity’s going to come, and you’ve got to make sure you’ve worked and prepared so you’re ready for that. And that’s what I feel about Eric. Eric’s done that. He hasn’t had a lot of snaps at safety but has been working and been around. He needs to have a great week of prep this week, but he’s ready for this opportunity.”
Williams missed UW’s win over Nebraska, and Harrell left in the second quarter. That left true freshman Rachad Wildgoose to step into every-down work along with Faion Hicks and Madison Cone.
Wildgoose had only played one game prior to Saturday, when he earned late snaps against New Mexico after the Badgers had secured a victory. Chryst said he believes the reps Wildgoose saw last week could go a long way towards preparing him for a potential meaningful role at Michigan.
Still, if Williams and Harrell can’t go, Wildgoose could be relied upon as a major contributor in his first career action on the road - something he said he feels mentally ready for.
“Honestly, sometimes I’m probably the most confident player on the field,” Wildgoose said. “I just feel like I can do anything.
“We do have a young secondary, but everyone’s working. Everyone’s working to get better and better and better each and every day. ... I believe in my guys. I believe in coaching. I believe in the play calls. Everything. So we should be alright.”
While UW ultimately defeated Nebraska comfortably, its secondary wasn’t exactly alright throughout the night, allowing 407 passing yards - more than the Badgers have surrendered in over a decade.
Chryst said that confidence could come from believing in the techniques that coaches are teaching and trusting others on the field to do their job. As the Badgers’ offense faces a much more difficult challenge this week, their defense won’t have nearly the same margin for error if UW wants to pull off an upset Saturday.
“I was prepared for this,” Burrell said. “I know why I came here. So I think it’s just the next man up. ... We’ve got to believe in the guy to the left and right of you. I think that’s what it really comes down to, regardless of who’s in there.”