When Jonathan Casillas caught Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews from behind Saturday to stop the running back from scoring a touchdown, the Wisconsin linebacker didn’t look like he was wearing a knee brace.
Though he’d missed the Badgers’ first two games with an injury, it didn’t show at all as he caught Mathews at the 9-yard line.
Whether or not he looked like he was recovering from an injury, it was indeed Casillas’ first game of the year, and he could not have picked a better time to make a play. The Badgers led 13-7 in the third quarter and, had Mathews scored, Wisconsin would have trailed late and on the road.
“I knew it was a big play,” Casillas said. “I was coming from the back side, and I’d seen him running, and I had a good angle on him. I was running as fast as I can — I didn’t know if I could get him, but I guess [cornerback Alan Langford] basically kept him away from the sideline and I was able to get him from behind.”
Considering it was his first game back, nobody could have asked for more from the senior.
“Obviously, he made a game-saving touchdown,” defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. “He won the game for us if you want to look at it that way.”
Game-saving tackle or not, Casillas still didn’t feel full strength for the game.
“First game back with the brace and all, I think (I) was kind of limited. But I played as hard as I could,” Casillas said. “I don’t think I put forth that bad of a performance.”
After leading UW with 96 tackles in 2007, Casillas made seven of them Saturday night.
His teammates didn’t think his performance was too bad, either. Fellow linebacker DeAndre Levy earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after his performance against the Bulldogs, but still felt the presence of Casillas.
“It felt good to finally have [Casillas] out there,” Levy said. “It was fun having him out there again and watching him do some of the things he can do.”
The timing of Levy’s impressive performance wasn’t lost on Casillas either.
“Basically, when I came back, he had the performance of his career,” Casillas said. “I’m probably his No. 1 fan. He probably doesn’t know that, but I am.”
There had been speculation that Casillas might return to action in Wisconsin’s second game, a home contest against Marshall, but Fresno was the best time for him to make his debut, according to Casillas.
“Fresno State was a great situation to come back. It was a night game, I had a lot of time for my knee to get warmed up,” Casillas said. “Basically, I go out there and bang it up a little more, and then I get to rest for a whole week-and-a-half. I can’t really ask for a better situation.”
The time off is the result of a bye for the Badgers this weekend. After playing the first three weeks of the season, UW won’t play again until they travel to Michigan next weekend.
For Casillas, it’s an opportunity to become even healthier, though for now he’s still wearing the brace on his knee.
“I kind of just got it right now just for protection,” Casillas said of the brace. “Just want to be smart about things. We have one more practice tomorrow, then we’ve got a couple of days off. Hopefully by Tuesday next week when we go hard again, hopefully I don’t wear it so I can get used to not wearing it.”
Even though the wait means even more time off for the guy who missed the season’s first two games, Casillas isn’t sweating it.
“You’ve got a week to basically heal. … It’s great, especially heading into that Big Ten schedule,” Casillas said.
After missing reps in practice throughout last week, Casillas is back to a full-practice workload as well.
“I was really limited last week, but this week I’m full-go,” Casillas said. “The last two days I’ve done everything. I’m OK, I’ll just be a little sore, but that’s expected.”
Though rehabbing his injured knee is still on his mind, the linebacker has already started focusing on his next challenge as well. The first Big Ten game of the season is closing in fast.
“It’s not Michigan of old,” Casillas said. “They’re bringing in a whole new offense. It’s a spread offense, but its something that we haven’t faced before.”
As for whether he’ll be ready to go next weekend, Casillas put it pretty simply.
“Yeah,” he said. “Definitely.”