When looking at the numbers UW has amassed, it’s equally obvious that the success is predicated on the play of Anttaj Hawthorne and Erasmus James.
Yet, with three out of the four starters sustaining limiting injuries against Purdue, senior tackle Jason Jefferson found himself the last lineman standing. The result was Wisconsin’s biggest win this year and the stuffing of Purdue’s Heisman-hoping (now doubting) quarterback Kyle Orton.
“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever experienced,” Jefferson said of the injuries sustained on Saturday. “I was just hoping I wasn’t next. Maybe I had to just pick up my game to help out the team more.”
Having the unfamiliar burden of being the leader of the defensive line, though, was not something that Jefferson was unprepared for.
“Well, I think anytime there is a starter in there — particularly a senior starter — I think he’s got to be the glue that holds it together and that’s pretty much what we talked about,” said defensive line coach John Palermo. “Plus, Jason is smart; Jason probably knows what everyone is doing up front, including the ends. So if there was any confusion or any doubt, he could help some of those younger players.”
Hailing from Leo High School on Chicago’s south side, Jefferson was not a very highly recruited player coming into college. With schools such as Eastern Michigan and Eastern Illinois recruiting him, it looked as if Jefferson was going to be passed over by the major football programs, but Palermo saw something in him and brought him to UW.
“Coming out of high school, I can remember Kevin (Cosgrove) and I were down there and said, ‘Look, we want you at Wisconsin. We’re gonna give you a shot, but if you’re not up to our standards, you probably ought to think of transferring,'” Palermo said. “He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. I’ll play.'”
“He was very confident,” Palermo continued. “But we also wanted to be up front with him because he wasn’t a very highly recruited kid. I saw something in him that I liked, and he’s been better than I ever dreamed of.”
Presented with the option, UW was an easy choice for Jefferson.
“Wisconsin was the best opportunity for me to play big-time football,” he said. “It’s exciting; this is Big Ten football, and that made it pretty easy for me to decide.”
Jefferson certainly has proven that he is as good for UW as it is for him. His impact, while most obvious against Purdue, has been noticeable throughout this season.
“J.J. did a great job of perseverance through that time right there,” Bielema said. “But he’s probably my, I don’t know if there’s an award for it or not, probably my favorite guy to have around. He doesn’t receive the notoriety, or awards, or accolades, but from day one, I said it at the end of spring ball last year, I think he carries an attitude with him that I wish everyone had. I want every young guy to be like him. He really, really, tries to do whatever you ask him to do. And plus, he just plays so hard and he’s smart. He so smart. That’s what impresses me.”
With starter Erasmus James sitting out, and Jonathan Welsh likely out for Wisconsin’s matchup with Northwestern, the pressure will be on the senior defensive tackles to put on the pressure while the backup ends try to fill big shoes.
“We just need to pick up the slack,” Jefferson said. “You know me and Anttaj (Hawthorne) pick up our intensity and play a little harder, play a little better. Try to make some more plays, that’s all we can do.”
With the kind of attention that Hawthorne has received this year, Jefferson has kind of lived in the shadows. Still, having the tandem together is part of the reason that Wisconsin has such a good line.
“I think everybody was aware that we were going to have a good defensive line,” Bielema said. “Well, at defensive tackle you know you build a foundation from inside out. If you have a defensive tackle that’s at a lower level than the other, they’ll take advantage of that. But there’s no let off between those two positions because JJ is so strong and smart and does what he needs to do. It’s a balance in there in the middle.”
While anything is still possible and the undefeated Badgers have arguably jumped the biggest hurdles of the season, it’s not over yet, and this team needs to dig down and accept that they are no longer the underdogs, but the team everyone wants to beat.