LINCOLN, Neb. — No smile. Nothing. Zip nada. Not even a smirk. The jaw remained clenched, the stare like a stone gargoyle.
Dylan Utter heard.
Dylan Utter shrugged.
“I saw that before I came up (to the news conference),” Nebraska’s senior center told Land of 10 Monday when asked about the fact Wisconsin inside linebacker Jack Cichy was out for the season. Torn pectoral muscle.
“I was watching both their (inside) linebackers (last night); they’re both pretty big studs. I’m sure they have a backup, just like we do, that’s going to fill in nicely.”
The job is the job is the job. And just because the No. 11 Badgers’ leading tackler is on the shelf, Utter noted, his to-do list Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium isn’t any shorter.
“Just like with our team, guys are stepping in when their name’s called,” Utter said. “And they’re going to do the same thing.”
Although Cichy’s name did tend to wind up getting called more than most. The former walk-on led the Badgers last weekend in tackles (10) in a grinding, 17-9 win at Iowa, and graded out with an 82.0 score (out of 100) for the afternoon by Pro Football Focus. The 6-foot-2 Cichy tops the Badgers in tackles (60) and ranks second in tackles for losses (7.0).
Market share Solo Tackles leaders
Andrew Motuapuaka, VT 16.2%
Jordan Jones, UK 15.7%
Jake Cichy, WIS 15.4%
Zach Cunningham, VU 14.6%
— Jon Moore (@HelloJonMoore) October 15, 2016
And a healthy No. 48 was one of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s favorite toys, a sure tackler and a wizard on timed stunts. The junior had picked up right where he left off in Wisconsin’s win over USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, in which he A-gapped the Trojans to death in the second half, squirting up the middle to rack up three sacks on three consecutive plays.
A kamikaze defender with a kamikaze mohawk, Cichy left the Iowa game just before halftime after tackling Hawkeyes tailback Akrum Wadley. He returned in the second half with a shoulder brace to try to finish what he’d started, with mixed results:
Chryst: “He (Cichy) didn’t hurt it worse by playing”
— Jake Zimmermann (@Jake_Zimmermann) October 24, 2016
Perhaps discretion in Iowa City would’ve proven the better part of valor, given the benefit of hindsight. Still, the Badgers aren’t just quick and sound at linebacker — they’re bloody deep, too. In his first season as coordinator, Wilcox has played to his strengths, creating havoc in the middle of the box, putting the pressure on the center and guards to figure out who’s coming and from where. Even if No. 48 isn’t looking for a gap to exploit, Utter said, Wisconsin is going to toss another body in there with the same sort of bloodlust.
Bucky comes into the weekend ranked third in the Big Ten in sacks per game (2.7, 19 in seven contests), while the Huskers are first in fewest sacks allowed — less than one per contest (0.7) despite a mess of injuries up and down the offensive line.
“Sometimes (quarterback) Tommy (Armstrong) helps us get out of some of those (situations),” Utter chuckled. “So it’s kind of deceiving. But, yeah, I’m proud of the guys.”
When it comes to resilience, stubbornness and will, Saturday in Mad City might feel a bit like looking in a mirror. Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) has maintained a top 10 defense nationally — the Badgers checked in at No. 9 as of Monday afternoon, allowing just 300.6 yards per game — despite starters such as inside linebacker T.J. Edwards and outside linebacker Vince Biegel already missing parts of the first half of the campaign with various scrapes.
“They’re just really good at the pass rush, they’re high-motor guys,” Utter continued. “And you’re going to be able to block them just for a split second. They’re going to keep going and going. So I think their motor is really what helps them a lot.”
Motor and wheels. Either Ryan Connelly or Leon Jacobs was listed as the starter in the depth chart released Monday by coach Paul Chryst. The former, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, has recorded 12 tackles in seven games and deputized for Edwards in Week 1 against LSU in Green Bay. Of those stops, the most significant was a clutch open-field takedown of the Tigers’ Leonard Fournette on a screen late in the Badgers’ 16-14 win:
T.J. Watt said they call Ryan Connelly “uncle” because he already has a receding hairline. Uncle had 7 tackles on Saturday against LSU.
— Alec Ausmus (@A_Twice27) September 5, 2016
Uncle Connelly won’t be the only understudy in the spotlight. The Badgers will be without nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, who missed the Iowa game with an arm injury, while starting cornerback Derrick Tindal (leg) and reserve outside linebacker Zack Baun (leg) are listed as questionable. At some point, all those ranked teams, all those ranked tests, start to take a little toll.
Chryst: Loved the way (Cichy) played. He’ll come back and still be a significant part of our team. And yet, it’s an opportunity for others.
— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) October 24, 2016
Thanks to everyone for the support! Can’t wait to get rehab underway. I know my brothers are gonna keep this season rolling! #OnWisconsin
— Jack Cichy (@jackCICHY) October 24, 2016
What’s true in Lincoln is true in Madison, too. The names and numbers may change. The mantra?
The mantra doesn’t.
And here comes that stare again.
“Just because he wasn’t the original starter doesn’t mean he’s not going to be a hell of a ballplayer,” Utter said. “So (we’ve) just got to prepare the same way.”