Badgers' defense stretched thin, Gophers next
Bret Bielema's next-man-in strategy is nice in theory. It doesn't change the fact the 16th-ranked Badgers are stretched thin on defense, particularly in the secondary.
Free safety Aaron Henry suffered a right ankle injury during the second quarter of Wisconsin's 62-17 win against Purdue, though Bielema expects the senior to be ready when Wisconsin (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) begins a two-game road trip at Minnesota (2-7, 1-4) on Saturday.
Henry, who ranks third on the team with 41 tackles, was replaced by Shelton Johnson, who shifted from strong to free safety. Dezmen Southward substituted at Johnson's spot. All the shifting comes in a secondary that lost cornerback Devin Smith (left foot) to season-ending surgery after he was injured Sept. 10 against Oregon State.
Bielema said he is confident that freshmen backups Peniel Jean and Devin Gaulden will step in to contribute at cornerback if needed.
''Yeah, I've had concern (with depth) ever since Devin Smith went down and that put `Crow' (Marcus Cromartie) into the situation where we're at,'' Bielema said Monday.
Cromartie and Johnson are gaining consistency, but had a communication breakdown after an Ohio State formation change in the final 20 seconds that led to the Buckeyes' game-winning touchdown Oct. 31 in Columbus.
''At Wisconsin, you're going to have a delicate, thin position at all times, it's just kind of a pick and choose,'' Bielema said.
Meanwhile, senior defensive end David Gilbert, who suffered a right foot injury in practice Sept. 27 and had surgery to repair a broken bone a day later, likely will return for next week's game at Illinois. Fellow defensive end Louis Nzegwu was knocked out in the third quarter against Ohio State, but the senior started against Purdue. Redshirt junior Brendan Kelly and redshirt sophomore Tyler Dippel have been strong substitutes.
Bielema remains positive and hopes the Badgers will stay healthy as the regular season winds down.
''You take away probably our two best defensive ends (Gilbert and Nzegwu), and you have to survive,'' he said. ''It is what it is.''