Badgers defense besieged by injuries, but still confident
MADISON, Wis. — Less than one quarter into Saturday’s game against Northwestern, Wisconsin lost two defensive starters for the rest of the day. Inside linebacker Marcus Trotter sustained a strained right groin, while cornerback Devin Gaulden dislocated his right wrist.
Those facts alone could lead to Badgers players throwing a pity party for themselves following a 20-14 loss at Northwestern — a game in which head coach Gary Andersen said his team missed 15 tackles. Instead, players this week refused to use injuries as an excuse. And neither have coaches.
"I think there’s always types of situations," Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. "We spend so much time thinking about these things. All of our wives and stuff, kids can probably tell you that. We think about all that stuff, and you want to be able to get in the right spots. There’s always an answer. I look at myself, and I didn’t find the answer."
In total, Wisconsin did not have the services of three players that had accumulated 42 tackles this season. Backup cornerback Derrick Tindal left late in Saturday’s game with an injured ankle, though he is ready to play this week against Illinois.
Perhaps the biggest blow was losing Trotter, who ranks second on the team in total tackles with 28. Trotter’s intelligence and knowledge of the other team’s playbook have helped Wisconsin tremendously in the run game this season. Before Saturday, the Badgers had held three of four opponents below 100 yards rushing. The highest output was 124 yards by LSU in the season opener. But Northwestern rolled to 203 yards on the ground, most of which came after Trotter left the game.
"Not being cocky or anything, but I just always feel like if I was in the game, specifically in the run defense, I felt like it could have been a different story," Trotter said. "Just because I already knew what they were running. I was screaming it out. I knew exactly what they were running. It was really painful not to be able to help the team when you know what to do. But it’s football and it’s a physical sport and you always have guys step up."
Wisconsin likely will be without Trotter against Illinois, Aranda said. The Badgers will use a three-man rotation at inside linebacker with Derek Landisch, Trotter’s brother Michael and Leon Jacobs.
"Marcus has got a ton of experience," Aranda said. "He’s got a great instinct at that inside linebacker spot. It’s difficult to get over the instinct part of it. So much of that position in the run game is instinct. There’s things you can do in terms of movement, blitzes, things to try to muddy the waters so there’s less reliance on those things. We’ll look at all those options."
Trotter said he wanted to be smart about his injury because Wisconsin has a bye following the Illinois game. The Badgers then will play six games in six weeks to close Big Ten play.
"I’ve just got to trust my body and how my body is feeling," Trotter said. "It’s my senior year. I’ve waited so long to play. It sucks. But I’ve just got to look to the future. My team really, really needs me the second half the season. I’ll be very foolish and selfish if I came back too early, got hurt and didn’t play the rest of the season."
Illinois ranks dead last in the Big Ten in rushing offense (96.0 yards per game), so Trotter’s absence may not have the same impact it would against other conference teams. The Illini do rank first in the Big Ten in passing offense (332.8 yards per game), but they won’t have quarterback Wes Lunt, who is out at least a month with a broken leg.
Given that Tindal and Gaulden are expected to play, however, Wisconsin should be at full strength in its back end. Gaulden said he would wear a cast on his right arm.
"It’s not the best feeling in the world having a cast on you, but it’s just an adjustment," he said. "I feel like throughout my college career I’ve had to adjust and face different challenges. So this is just another one I put on top of the list to get through."
Whoever is on the field for Wisconsin’s defense, the product will need to be much better than it was against Northwestern. And players are taking that message to heart this week.
"It’s no excuse," Tindal said. "That’s why we practice ones, twos, threes. Everybody should know what they’re doing. We just made some mistakes. That’s what we come to practice to get better for. We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen again."
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