When the Gophers offense takes the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, Kirk Ciarrocca will have plenty on his plate to consider when facing Wisconsin’s defense. Not the least of his concerns are the Badgers linebacking corps, the strength of the team’s defense.
In seniors T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly on the inside, and senior Andrew Van Ginkel and junior Zack Baun on the outside, the Badgers linebackers have combined for 269 tackles, 44 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.
“Their scheme makes it really hard. They do a great job of keeping those guys free,” Ciarrocca, the Gophers offensive coordinator said Wednesday. “Golly, it seems like they’ve been playing forever. T.J. Edwards, is he in his seventh year?’
No, Edwards is only in his fourth year, but he’s been a starter since he was a freshman. The 6-1, 242-pounder earned freshman All-America honors in 2015, All-America honors last year and leads the Badgers with 86 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss this season.
His running mate inside is Connelly, the former walk-on from Eden Prairie who has 84 tackles, including 10 for losses. Ciarrocca is impressed with the former prep quarterback.
“You talk about tough and plays downhill and hits you,” Ciarrocca said of the 6-3, 237-pounder. “He plays off blocks better than any linebacker I can remember in a while. He probably gets more holding calls on guys trying to block him than anybody I can remember watching on film.”
Added Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst: “Ryan has meant so much to this team and this program. The way he approaches every day, he’s playing at a high level. He’s a great teammate and a great person. He’s playing his best football, and he means a ton to this place.”
Saturday’s game will mark a reunion for Connelly and a couple of his Eden Prairie teammates, linebacker Blake Cashman and rush end Carter Coughlin. In Connelly’s senior year, Cashman was a junior and Coughlin a sophomore.
“That’s my guy,” said Cashman, who like Connelly was a walk-on. “Great football player, great leader at Eden Prairie. I actually talked to him this week and congratulated him on the big win against Purdue and told him I looked forward to seeing him this weekend.”
Big red line
Wisconsin’s offensive line was widely regarded as the nation’s best entering the season, and even though the 7-4 Badgers are having a down season by their standards, the line has helped running back Jonathan Taylor rush for 1,869 yards.
That line, which averages nearly 6-6 and 316 pounds, presents a big challenge for Gophers interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi.
“That’s the thing that separates them. They are very athletic to go along with their size,” Rossi said. “You see guys that are really big but have trouble moving their feet. They move their feet well.”
Eden Prairie plays Lakeville North in the Prep Bowl for the Class 6A state championship on Friday, and Cashman was asked for a prediction.
“You know I’ve got my Eagles, I’ll never turn against them,” he said of Eden Prairie, which lost 14-0 to Lakeville North in Week 2. “I’m still tapped into that, and I know Lakeville North’s got some great players. I’ll be streaming the game from the hotel, keeping an eye on my Eagles.’’