CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The University of Wisconsin’s defensive line was already thin heading into its match against North Carolina here Saturday night. But things have gotten worse for the Badgers.
Already without sophomore defensive tackle Justin Ostrowski, and playing without end Kurt Ware — who did not make UW’s first road trip of the season because of a case of chicken pox — Wisconsin lost another key member of its young front four when defensive end Jamal Cooper went down in the second quarter.
Though it’s too early to determine the full extent of Cooper’s injury, initial indications look bleak as the sophomore limped off the field after the game on crutches following what head coach Barry Alvarez classified as an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
“[Defensive line coach John Palermo], didn’t have the luxury of rolling them today, because we didn’t have enough guys to roll,” Alvarez commented.
Prior to his injury, Cooper was giving the Tar Heel offensive line, especially true freshman right tackle Garrett Reynolds, fits. In less than two quarters of action Cooper picked up a pair of tackles for loss, including a devastating sack on North Carolina quarterback Matt Baker that sent the senior flailing from the whiplash, as well as several hurries of the Tar Heel signal caller.
“I thought Cooper was playing really well, he made a couple of nice plays early on,” defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said, his voice nearly gone from the game. “We were already a little thin at that position so we were going to Plan A, to Plan B, it kind of reminded me of the Purdue game (from last season).”
Plan B turned out to be quite fruitful for the Badgers. With Cooper and Ware both on the mend, Wisconsin turned to true freshman Matt Shaughnessy to pick up the pass rushing slack. And Shaughnessy did not disappoint.
The true freshman was a disruptive force all game, compiling 1.5 tackles for loss and a half a sack. It was also Shaughnessy who, along with sam linebacker LaMarr Watkins, knocked Baker out of the game briefly following a sandwich hit on the quarterback.
“Matt Shaughnessy just keeps really coming along and the things that he does, for a young kid, he’s really into it, he’s focused,” Bielema said. “I can’t say enough good things about him, he keeps getting better everyday.”
“We always talk about everyone who goes in, keeping the same level. So I just tried to keep the same level,” Shaughnessy said.
After Cooper’s injury, Wisconsin was forced to employ a short rotation consisting mostly of Shaughnessy, end Joe Monty and tackles Nick Hayden and Jason Chapman, all of whom finished the game with at least half a sack. End Brandon Kelly and tackle Mike Newkirk also saw some spot duty.
UW starting left tackle Joe Thomas, who played defensive end for the Badgers in the Music City Bowl two years ago, said that he was told Friday he could play end on the goal line defense. That never became an issue Saturday, however, as UNC did not reach the red zone until late in the fourth quarter.
Despite the hardship, Bielema believes the defense is showing steady improvement to go along with its potential.
“Where they were at the Bowling Green game, coming off that field, to where they are right now, they’ve made gigantic steps, but it’s no where close to being as good as they can be,” Bielema commented.
Hogan sees action: After starting sam linebacker LaMarr Watkins went down with an injury in the third quarter, sophomore Casey Hogan spent a pair of plays on the field for Wisconsin. Hogan tackled North Carolina running back Cooter Arnold on his first play from scrimmage, but the play was called back for holding as Tar Heel tackle Charleston Gray. Watkins returned two downs later.