MADISON, Wis. — When fall camp opened nearly four months ago, the excitement surrounding Wisconsin’s inside linebacker group was palpable. Four players were worthy of starting despite the Badgers having only two starting spots, and the biggest concern focused on how all of them would see the field.
But injury issues threw a wrench into the storyline that Wisconsin possessed the deepest linebacker group in the country. Jack Cichy suffered a season-ending torn right ACL in fall camp, which left Wisconsin with three top linebackers. Chris Orr then sustained a left leg injury that has kept him out the past two games.
So when Wisconsin took the field Saturday against Michigan, only two of the Badgers’ fearsome foursome was healthy enough to play. T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly more than made up for the loss of their teammates.
Edwards recorded a team-best 11 tackles with a career-high 2 1/2 tackles for loss. Connelly tallied 10 tackles, one shy of his career high, and added 1 1/2 tackles for loss. The duo was seemingly everywhere on defense, leading the charge during No. 5 Wisconsin’s 24-10 victory against No. 24 Michigan.
“I felt as if Ryan and I really had to kind of take over this game,” Edwards said. “In the position we were in, our D-line was doing their job and getting us free, so it was our job to make the plays. We were able to do that [Saturday] for the most part.”
Connelly and Edwards have been phenomenal all season. Connelly leads Wisconsin with 65 tackles and has 7 tackles for loss, while Edwards ranks second with 60 tackles, has 8 1/2 tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead with 4 interceptions. Their value to the team has been even more significant without Cichy and now Orr because of their responsibilities in shouldering the burden inside.
“They understand each other, and they’re learning when to be a cowboy and when to do their job,” Badgers safety Joe Ferguson said. “They fly around and make big hits and always do what they’re supposed to do. Very rarely do we come off the sideline and need to make an adjustment with them. They’re always locked in and getting everybody ready. They’re just incredible players. They play with a ton of care.”
And what, exactly, is a cowboy in this scenario?
“I would say Ryan is the definition of a cowboy when you see him shoot a gap and make a tackle,” Ferguson said. “A lot of times his rule is to maybe let it play out. But he just says, ‘Screw it, I’m going to go make the play.’ That’s what Ryan and T.J. are all about. It really helps the team.”
Edwards and Connelly were effective all the way through the last drive Saturday. During the third quarter, Edwards recorded an important sack of Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters on third-and-8 from Wisconsin’s 38-yard line with the score tied at 7. Instead of potentially moving into field goal range, the Wolverines were forced to punt.
On Michigan’s final offensive series in the fourth quarter, Edwards made a tackle on Grant Perry’s 8-yard catch to prevent a first down. Connelly drove quarterback John O’Korn out of bounds two plays later for no gain. And on fourth-and-2, Connelly and outside linebacker Leon Jacobs stuffed O’Korn for 1 yard, short of the line to gain, which gave the ball back to Wisconsin for the last time.
“These guys are dogs,” Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon said. “They’ve been doing this, T.J. especially, he’s been doing this since his redshirt freshman year. He’s been doing this for a long time now. Ryan Connelly has been doing this for a long time now. There never really seemed to be an added sense of pressure.
“Guys come out and do what they love, and they do it well. It’s lucky for us we were able to have guys like that behind Cichy and in the rotation as well. It’s great to see them come out here and just fly. They trust it and they just go. They’re fearless.”
Connelly and Edwards embody why Wisconsin has been so successful over the years, outperforming their high school recruiting rankings. Connelly was a walk-on from Eden Prairie, Minn., who earned his opportunity last season because of injuries. He started eight games, collected Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for his performance against Nebraska and has continued to be a force in the middle as a junior.
Edwards was a two-star player from Lake Villa, Ill., who played quarterback in high school. But after taking a redshirt season in 2014, he has become the team’s most consistent linebacker. Edwards has led Wisconsin in tackles each of the past two seasons and could become the first player to achieve the feat in three consecutive seasons since Pete Monty (1994-96).
“I thought those two were noticeable, and they played fast and made big plays,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said after the game Saturday. “Quite honestly, they were fun to watch and certainly a big part of this defense.”
Given the way Edwards has performed this season, there is reason to believe he could leave school a year early and declare for the NFL draft. Edwards said he hadn’t considered whether the game Saturday was his last at Camp Randall Stadium.
“No, not at all,” Edwards said. “That’s a couple weeks down the road. Right now, I’m just focused on next week and see where it goes from there.”
Edwards noted he expected Orr to return this season, which would strengthen the inside linebacker unit. But Edwards and Connelly will continue to be relied upon heavily as 11-0 Wisconsin pursues an undefeated regular season, a Big Ten championship and a potential spot in the College Football Playoff.
The two of them are ready to fulfill the task together.
“We have a great relationship both on and off the field, and I think that translates well onto the field,” Connelly said. “We’re always talking, we’re always relaying what we see, we’re talking right before the play. That’s big to be able to be successful.”