Last January, Kirk Ciarrocca faced a formidable challenge. He had to find a way to deal with Wisconsin’s defense. As Western Michigan’s offensive coordinator at the time, he had mixed results, with his upstart Broncos falling 24-16 to the Badgers in the Cotton Bowl.

Nearly 11 months later, Ciarrocca has a similar challenge with the Gophers, who face No. 5 Wisconsin and its lock-down defense on Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.

“That was a good defense, a really good defense, but this is a better defense,” Ciarrocca said, comparing the 2016 and ’17 versions. “Their coverage is better, their interior defensive linemen are better and their linebackers have always been great.”

The statistics bear that out. Wisconsin (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) is ranked second nationally in total defense (246.4 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (13.1 ppg), along with first in rushing defense (79.4). That’s the brick wall the Gophers (5-6, 2-6) will try to penetrate.

While solid throughout, the Badgers are particularly strong at linebacker. Ryan Connelly, a junior from Eden Prairie, leads Wisconsin with 65 tackles, including seven for loss. But Connelly is not even the Badgers’ best. That title belongs to junior T.J. Edwards, who has 60 tackles, 8½ tackles for loss and four interceptions, and is a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker.

“I’m with him every day, and sometimes you forget how good a linebacker he is,” Connelly said. “To see him getting all these honors and awards, it’s pretty special to get to play next to him every weekend.”

Added Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, “Their linebackers are very, very talented. Seems like they’ve been there forever, especially T.J. Edwards; just wondering when he’ll graduate.”

Getting into the flow

Connelly is no slouch himself. He’s coming off consecutive games of nine tackles against Iowa and 10 against Michigan as the Badgers continue to march toward the College Football Playoff. The former walk-on and high school quarterback is rounding into shape after shoulder surgery last spring.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to play spring ball and missed a bit of camp, so I feel I’m starting to get back to myself,” said Connelly, whose only Division I offer was from Wisconsin. “I’m starting to get in the flow of things.”

Badgers coach Paul Chryst sees Connelly improving.

“I’ve really enjoyed being around Ryan and seeing his growth and maturity as a player and a person,” Chryst said. “He is a significant, major contributor to our defense. I love the way he goes about every day. School’s important to him, and he works at that. Then he comes over here [to the football complex], and football’s important to him, and he works at that. He trusts his preparation and work, and he’s truly enjoying playing.”

Help from a player/coach

Connelly isn’t the only former Minnesota high school player excelling as a Badgers linebacker. Former Hill-Murray standout Jack Cichy has been a key, too, although his impact is coming off the field.

Cichy, of Somerset, Wis., hasn’t played this season because of a torn knee ligament suffered in training camp. That injury derailed the comeback he made from a torn pectoral muscle that forced him to miss the final seven games of the 2016 season. This season, Cichy has served as a coach of sorts, wearing a headset during games and giving advice to teammates.

“Cich has an amazing outlook on everything, and that was one of the hardest things for everyone on this team to see — not only what happened to him last year but to come back and get hurt in fall camp,” Chryst said. “Cich never makes it about himself, and he’s still contributing. It says a lot. He cares about this group, this team, and it’s a lot different way than he pictured contributing his senior year, but nonetheless has had an impact.”

Added Connelly, “He’s really instrumental to our success on Saturdays and our success during the week.”

On Saturday, Wisconsin and that stout defense will try to continue that success by defeating the Gophers to win Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the 14th consecutive year and keep alive their playoff aspirations.

“It’s extremely important and everything’s turned up a notch this week,” Connelly said of the Axe. “We don’t want to be the team that lets it go.”