Every yard Michigan gained against it felt like pulling teeth. Ohio State’s electric offense went through the Wisconsin defense in the first half of last Saturday’s showdown like a hot knife through concrete.
When the Badgers don’t leave bruises, they leave blisters.
“I think we’re pretty elite, too,” Wisconsin linebacker Jack Cichy said after his squad fell to the second-ranked Buckeyes in overtime, 30-23, coughing up a 16-6 lead in the process. “But you know, it shows us that we’re justified in having that chip on your shoulder.”
The Badgers (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) play angry, to lift a catchphrase from Wichita State men’s basketball coach Gregg Marshall. They play like the other guy borrowed their copy of “Assassin’s Creed: Victory” and decided to use it as a coaster. Wisconsin heads into a massive intradivision tussle at Iowa (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) this weekend ranked sixth nationally in fewest points allowed per drive against FBS opposition (1.18), according to BCFToys.com.
In fact, the top four teams in the Big Ten West are all among the top 45 most efficient defenses in the country, as the Badgers are followed closely by Iowa (1.53 points allowed per drive, No. 21 nationally), Nebraska (1.57, No. 25), Minnesota (1.61, No. 27) and Northwestern (1.87, No. 41).
What the division lacks in College Football Playoff locks it more than makes up for in toughness. If you’re going to punch a ticket to Indianapolis at the end of November, you’re going to have to earn it.
The hard way.
“A lot of people kind of short-sell us and sell us out,” Cichy said. “(But) I know the guys in the locker room and the coaches, they know what we’re capable of. And we’re going to just continue to do that.”
And he’s not alone. With the season at its midpoint, here’s a look at Land of 10’s all-West Division defensive team:
P — Ryan Santoso, Minnesota, Jr.
One of the strongest legs in the division as a placekicker last fall (12-for-18 on field goals, 38 kickoff touchbacks), Santoso has transitioned nicely into the role as Peter Mortell’s replacement, averaging 42.1 yards per boot.
DE/OLB — Carroll Phillips, Illinois, Sr.
Teammates Dawuane Smoot and Chunky Clements get more love from the NFL scouts, but Phillips has quietly put together the better season off the edge, leading the Big Ten in tackles for loss (1.83 per game) and ranking third in sacks per game (0.67).
DL — Jake Replogle, Purdue, Sr.
Injuries have put a dent on a star-crossed season for the Boilermakers star, but he’s proven to be almost unblockable 1-on-1 up the middle when healthy, collecting five tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in five games.
DL — Ifeadi Odenigbo, Northwestern, Sr.
One of the more highly touted defensive prospects to ever suit up under Pat Fitzgerald, the senior from Ohio is living up to that potential, leading the Big Ten in solo sacks (seven) and sacks per game (1.17).
DE/OLB — T.J. Watt, Wisconsin, Jr.
The next in the bloodline, the youngest of the family of Flying Watt Brothers is carving out his own legacy as a pass-rushing specialist — five sacks, one solo — and the emerging star on one of the nation’s best defensive units.
LB — Jack Cichy, Wisconsin, Jr.
A former walk-on, Captain “A” Gap has proven himself to be a reliable open-field tackler and more than just a stunt-rushing specialist, ranking among the league’s top 10 in tackles (8.3 per game) and tackles for loss (1.17 per contest).
LB — Hardy Nickerson III, Illinois, Sr.
A chip off the old block, the son of ex-NFL great Hardy Nickerson has picked up right where left off after transferring in from California, pacing the Big Ten in total tackles (58), assisted tackles (38) and tackles per game (9.7).
CB/KR — Desmond King, Iowa, Sr.
Eye-popping interception numbers are down from 2015 (six pass break-ups, one pick so far this fall), but still probably the best all-around defensive back in the division, even against the run. Has the potential to be a mini-Jabrill Peppers, if only they’d let him touch the ball on offense every once in a while.
S — D’Cota Dixon, Wisconsin, Jr.
Fast and freewheeling, Dixon forced a timely fumble at Michigan State and plucked a pair of massive interceptions against LSU and Ohio State. Dixon and running mate Leo Musso have provided a steely backbone to the division’s best defense.
S — Nathan Gerry, Nebraska, Sr.
If it feels like the senior safety is everywhere on the field — that’s because he usually is. The 6-2 defensive back ranks among the Big Ten’s top 20 in tackles (7.4 per game), tackles for loss (1.10 per contest), passes defensed (1.2) and interceptions (0.4).
CB — Derrick Tindal, Wisconsin, Jr.
Teams have made no secret about trying to challenge the junior cornerback up the boundary, and Tindal has responded, breaking up seven passes and picking off three others.
CB — Chris Jones, Nebraska, Jr.
You mess with the Huskers’ secondary at your peril, and the Florida native is one of the major reasons why. The 6-foot corner has paced the Big Red defense with three picks and six pass break-ups. And he’s just as physical when playing in the box, recording two tackles for losses and a sack during a win at Northwestern that’s starting to look larger with each passing week.