MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin doesn’t have a defense. It has a brotherhood.
Spend five minutes with them, you’ll see.
At post-practice interviews, Chikwe Obasih pelts Conor Sheehy with tape balls, trying to get him to laugh on camera, then pokes at D’Cota Dixon with a foam roller with the same intent.
“He’s like a kid, actually,” Alec James, junior defensive end, told Landof10.com Wednesday after practice in describing Obasih. “I’m not really sure how old he is.”
They are roommates, sit down for dinner as a group almost every night and even keep family secrets — mainly about said dinners.
“We got this secret place now,” James said. “I can’t release the name, but it’s definitely good. One of the hidden gems of Madison.”
His only hint: Korean barbecue.
Perhaps the best-kept secret, though, is how the heck a defense plagued by as much injury as the Badgers manages to show up and show out each week.
Despite losing key players for the season, and sending others out banged up, Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is No. 11 in total defense heading into Saturday’s game against Illinois. It’s baffling, and might have everything to do with that sibling-like bond — a connection that, so far, has withstood every test, which has Wisconsin feeling confident heading into November, the season’s most challenging month.
Sophomore inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said his defense handles every bout of adversity as a family would, and everyone plays a part.
“I’d say I’m the big brother,” Edwards said.
“I think Chris (Orr) is like the cousin that no one wants to hang out with, but he’s a good guy, so you let him in,” he added, jokingly. “(Jack) Cichy is like another brother. Ryan (Connelly) is the quiet uncle. It’s a good group of guys, for sure.”
When Orr and Cichy went down for the season with injuries, the initial conversations weren’t so much about the impact their absences would have on the field. Instead, the defense checked in with their heads and hearts.
“You know how much work they’ve put in and you hate for all that work to be wasted on a season,” Connelly, a sophomore inside linebacker, said. “You really hurt for them.”
The support goes both ways. When Connelly stepped in for Cichy, whose season ended after tearing his pectoral muscle Oct. 22 against Iowa, their connection was more palpable than ever. Connelly said Cichy was hell-bent on his success as if it were his own.
“This is the closest team I’ve ever been a part of,” Connelly said. “And I’m not saying that just to say it. I’m genuinely friends with all the dudes on the defense.”
And if there was ever a time to stick together, it’s through the war that is the month of November.
Wisconsin sits at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings, but to break into one of the coveted top four spots, November has to be flawless.
Wisconsin needs a win against Illinois on Saturday at Camp Randall, then must also get through Purdue and Minnesota for a trip to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. Win that, and the Badgers have a strong case for a playoff berth.
But one misstep and that case vanishes. No pressure, right?
“Like coach (Paul) Chryst always talks about, we just have to focus on this game,” Connelly said. “None of our goals are accomplishable if we don’t win the next game up. We have to bring each other back to earth like that.”
It’s a balancing act, and a weighty one at that. These guys are juggling expectations statewide — everyone from friends to fans to the university is counting on them.
And, oh yeah, teachers, too.
Exams tend to pile up toward the end of November every year, adding untimely stress. The Badgers’ band of brothers responds the best way it knows how: together.
“I have class with Chikwe and we definitely help each other out,” James said. “Sometimes he tries to mess around, but you know me, I’m laser focused.”
“But in all seriousness, he does really well in school,” he added. “At the end of the day, you want to get your degree. It’s why you’re here at a great university.”
Unlike non-athletes, who are rewarded for their academic grind with a trip home for Thanksgiving, the Badgers have to stay and practice over the holiday.
It doesn’t mean they’re without family, though.
Last year, Chryst treated the whole team to brunch at Samba, a Brazilian grill in Madison featuring a variety of all-you-can-eat meats, cut table side.
“We pig out,” Connelly said.
The family time — and of course, the eating — continues throughout the night.
“Me, Chikwe, T.J., Corey (Clement) and Leon (Jacobs) went to a movie then got Chinese food,” James said. “It was the only thing that was open.”
So to say Wisconsin’s defensemen are close is an understatement. They are close to each other and close to their goal of bringing some hardware back to the school that brought them together in the first place.
“There are a lot of guys who get homesick sometimes,” James said. “But we just try to bring them in and let them know that this is their family, too.”
Clear eyes, full stomachs, can’t lose.