2019 Wisconsin Rewind: Defensive Line

Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Jake Kocorowski

The 2019 college football season has officially passed for the Wisconsin Badgers after falling to the No. 6 Oregon Ducks in the 2020 Rose Bowl Game on Jan. 1.

AllBadgers.com presents a new series, "2019 Wisconsin Rewind," that will break down each UW position group from last season. Positional stats, standout and rough performances will be dissected, and one question will be presented for each room heading into spring ball later this year.

Previous installments: Quarterbacks; running backs/fullbacks; wide receivers; tight ends; offensive line

A healthy defensive line greatly helped rejuvenate defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard's unit overall in 2019. The team finished first in the nation in third down conversion defense (27.3), fifth in total defense (287.1 yards per game), sixth in rushing defense (99.8 yards per game) and 10th in scoring defense (16.9 points per game). The Badgers also recorded a school-record 51 sacks, and their 3.64 sacks per game average ranks fifth in the FBS as of Jan. 7.

Though the unit overall does not necessarily show eye-opening numbers on the stat sheets compared to the linebackers, UW's 3-4 scheme is reliant on the line eating up blocks to allow those behind them to make plays. However, a few players shed blocks and made impacts when called upon.

First off, defensive end Matt Henningsen scored two touchdowns on the season -- a 16-yard fumble recovery return for six points at South Florida in the opener and falling on the ball in the end zone after a Eric Burrell strip-sack against Northwestern about a month later. The former walk-on played in all 14 games, recording five tackles for loss and four sacks in his redshirt sophomore season.

Redshirt juniors Garrett Rand and Isaiahh Loudermilk returned to health and undoubtedly helped the defense return to form. Though the former missed a regular season game at Ohio State due to a head injury, he played in the other 13 contests (nine starts) while the latter started all 14 for UW in 2019. 

Loudermilk tied Henningsen in terms of tackles (24) and tackles for loss (five), while Rand led all defensive linemen in the former category (27).

The unit took a hit in experience when starting nose tackle Bryson Williams played in only six games due to what UW officially listed as a left leg injury. Despite the lack of depth at that position, the surprise of the defense came from true freshman Keeanu Benton. 

The first-year player from Janesville, Wis. (Craig) asserted himself into the two-deep during fall camp -- his first few weeks practicing as a college football player -- then proceeded to play in 13 of the 14 contests (six of those starts). He registered four tackles for loss, and both of his sacks came against eventual College Football Playoff participant Ohio State. The two-time WIAA state runner up in wrestling during his high school days utilized that skillset early on, and his upside is extremely high heading into this sophomore season.

Player Stats

  • Garrett Rand: 27 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack
  • Matt Henningsen: 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, two pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, two touchdowns (All-Big Ten honorable mention by the coaches)
  • Isaiahh Loudermilk: 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles (consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention)
  • Keeanu Benton: 12 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks

Best Performance

This is a tough one, and maybe I am thinking more of the defense as a whole, but one could look somewhere within the first six games of the season. With the help of a Henningsen touchdown, the Badgers contained the Bulls in the season-opener to the tune of 157 yards. Then in the next week, UW clamped down on bowl-bound Central Michigan in allowing just 57 total yards. 

During conference play, holding Michigan State to zero points and 149 total points popped out immensely. However, maybe the Minnesota game pops out the most. Though in all, the Gophers gained 372 yards -- a chunk of those in the fourth quarter with the game already in hand. Rand and Loudermilk combined for 1.5 sacks, with the former's play also forcing a fumble that led to a Wisconsin touchdown in the second half. In the biggest regular season game of the year, the defense and its line stepped up.

Worst Performance

Again, maybe this is the whole defense I'm looking at, but the loss at Ohio State (431 yards allowed, 264 rushing) and road win at Nebraska (493 yards allowed, 273 rushing) showed the unit was not impenetrable. Despite the Huskers coming off of a bye week, the Badgers nearly saw two players go over 100 yards on the ground that day in running back Dedrick Mills and quarterback Adrian Martinez.

Question for 2020: Will This Unit be the Strength of the Defense Next Season?

Wisconsin loses reserve defensive linemen David Pfaff and Gunnar Roberge due to exhausting their respective eligibilities, but the rest of the players from assistant Inoke Breckterfield's room returns. 

Rand, Henningsen, and Loudermilk showed their abilities to be contributors at the end spots. It should bear watching how would-be third-year players Isaiah Mullens and Boyd Dietzen, along with 2019 signees Rodas Johnson and Gio Paez, compete for potential rotational spots in spring and fall camps. 

At nose tackle, Benton and Williams return for their sophomore and junior campaigns, respectively. Just when we see the latter come back to the field, remains to be known at this point.

The line showed some pass rushing presence this season. With linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun departing -- who contributed 24 sacks last season -- can Rand, Benton, Loudermilk and Henningsen also assist in get to opposing quarterbacks more while also holding up their typical responsibilities?