CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Bruised and battered, with half its original two-deep on the mend, the University of Wisconsin’s defensive line still managed to dominate here Saturday night.
After the 14-5 win over North Carolina, however, having already acknowledged that defensive end Jamal Cooper probably suffered a major knee injury during the game, Badger head coach Barry Alvarez was asked how many personnel losses one unit can take.
“You only have so many,” Alvarez said. “You’ve got to bow your neck and do with what you’ve got. That’s how you handle it.”
UW’s defensive line has undergone a remarkable transition in the past year, but has continued to thrive.
Last season Wisconsin boasted one of the best defenses in the nation, led by arguably the best defensive line in the country, a quartet of seniors, all of whom were selected in last April’s NFL Draft: ends Erasmus James and Jonathan Welsh and tackles Anttaj Hawthorne and Jason Jefferson. Another senior, Kalvin Barrett, was a top reserve.
Despite questions regarding an influx of youth, in spring practices the strength of Wisconsin’s defense was clearly the defensive line. And that has held true through the Badgers’ 3-0 start this season.
By midway through the second quarter Saturday night, though, half of the preseason two-deep was not available.
Sophomore Justin Ostrowski, likely the team’s best defensive tackle, has been out indefinitely with a knee injury since early in fall training camp. Defensive line coach John Palermo said last week that he hopes Ostrowski will be able to return for the last third of the season.
Junior Mark Gorman, penciled in as a second-team defensive tackle in the spring, broke his foot before training camp and is still unable to practice. Gorman may return in the middle of the season, Palermo said.
Then on Friday, as Wisconsin was loading the bus to catch its flight to North Carolina, the Badgers learned that top reserve defensive end Kurt Ware, a star in UW’s first two games this season, would not be making the trip due to a bout with the chicken pox.
Perhaps the worst blow of all, though, came in the second quarter here Saturday night. With 7:26 left in the first half, Cooper, the team’s best defensive lineman, went down with a left knee injury while chasing UNC quarterback Matt Baker toward the sideline. Alvarez said afterwards that Cooper likely injured his anterior cruciate ligament. If Cooper suffered a torn ACL, his season would be over.
The silver lining for the Badgers is the remarkable play of the linemen that remain intact. Starting sophomore defensive tackle Nick Hayden has been very good, and junior defensive end Joe Monty has been steady. Saturday, those two worked for most of the game alongside redshirt freshman tackle Jason Chapman and true freshman end Matt Shaughnessy. Sophomore end Brandon Kelly and redshirt freshman tackles Mike Newkirk and Gino Cruse substituted in spots.
With their depth fraying, the Badgers front still controlled the line of scrimmage, constantly pressuring Baker and helping to limit UNC to 57 yards rushing.
“During the game I don’t really think about it,” strong safety Joe Stellmacher said. “We’ve got enough to worry about in the back end. But now that I think about it: Justin out, Coop out, Kurt out. Just to see those young guys grow up in front of your face. They’re doing a heck of a job. I can’t say enough about them.”
Shaughnessy’s play has been particularly impressive. He had 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack Saturday, and often pressured Baker. He held up well in his most extensive playing time of his young career, while continuing to serve on UW’s special teams.
“It never looked like he was tired,” Alvarez said. “I guess that’s a good thing with having those 18-year-old legs. They don’t get tired, those kids. Man, did he play. I’m really proud of him. That’s unbelievable. Then he’s covering punts and on the punt return and kickoff team. We took him off some of that.”
“I really thought he played exceptional for a young kid,” Alvarez said.
UW customarily rotates eight or more players in its defensive line, but may no longer have that luxury.
One player who could help bolster the depth is starting left offensive tackle Joe Thomas. As a true freshman two years ago, Thomas played defensive end for one game — starting the Music City Bowl. He played well, recording seven tackles.
Thomas is the Badgers’ best offensive lineman and one of its most valuable players, but he was told Friday to be ready to fill in on the goal-line defense with Ware scratched from the lineup. That situation never arose against UNC, but Thomas would welcome the opportunity to double shift.
“I always love being on the field,” Thomas said. “When you’re on defense you can be a playmaker like you can’t really when you’re playing on the offensive line. And I was really fired up about that chance but it didn’t rise to that, so maybe hopefully later on in the season.”