Ryan Connelly said he didn’t have time to get nervous. The Eden Prairie product was thrown into Wisconsin’s season opener against No. 5 LSU after starting linebacker Chris Orr suffered a knee injury on the Badgers’ first defensive play of the game.
Connelly responded with his first tackle on the next play and finished with seven. His final tackle late in fourth quarter was arguably Wisconsin’s most important defensive stop of the game.
LSU led 14-13 with 8:54 left in the game facing Third-and-8 from its own 33-yard line. Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris found Leonard Fournette open on the left flat with the Badgers outnumbered. Connelly was their last hope to shut down what could have been a big play.
Connelly, a redshirt sophomore who was a quarterback at Eden Prairie, beat two blockers and pulled down Fournette to stop the drive, force LSU to punt, and help set up what would be Wisconsin’s game-winning drive in the 16-14 upset victory at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
“I didn’t have time to get nervous. Even though it was the first play, I didn’t have to spend all Friday night worrying and the weeks leading up worrying,” Connelly told reporters this week. “I just had to go in and do what we’ve been preparing for and it just made it a lot easier.”
Connelly is scheduled to make his first career start Saturday when the Badgers host Akron at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I thought Ryan did an excellent job,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “To be honest with you, it wasn’t really surprising. Ryan has showed improvement since I’ve been here. It was just a chance for him to go out and play and I thought he played totally under control and did a good job.”
Connelly wasn’t recruited by any other FBS programs out of high school and knew he wasn’t good enough to be a Division 1 quarterback. He changed his position to linebacker the day before his first college practice, earned a spot as a walk-on, and a year later was given a scholarship.
He climbed into the backup inside linebacker role this season after starter T.J. Edwards suffered an injury, then slid up the depth chart again after another injury last Saturday.
“Coming into college, I wanted to put on as much weight as I could so that I wouldn’t be a quarterback anymore,” Connelly said.
Now he’s 6-foot-3, 235-pounds and starting for the nationally 10th-ranked Badgers.
“I still got to practice the same way,” Connelly said. “I think the whole inside linebacker crew, we all practice as if we could play and we all have the confidence as if we could play at any moment.”
See Connelly's big play from last Saturday by watching the Big Ten Network's recent feature on him.