With the Badgers recently enjoying a bye week, there is no better time to evaluate Wisconsin’s play up to this point in the season.
Through eight games, the Badgers are 7-1 and are the highest ranked Big Ten team in the polls. Let’s take a look at Wisconsin football’s mid-season report.
Top offensive player: Gabe Carimi, LT
He doesn’t score touchdowns, he won’t be featured on the highlight reals, but senior left tackle Gabe Carimi has been far and away the most impressive offensive player for the Badgers.
Carimi has been an absolute force on the left side of the UW offensive line, and he’s handled two of the best defensive ends in the country in OSU’s Cameron Heyward and Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn. Whenever the Badgers need a short gain on the ground, head coach Bret Bielema knows he can run right behind the 6-foot-7, 327-pound tackle. The running backs have made good use of Carimi’s blocking, pummeling opposing defenses on the ground week in and week out.
In his final year, Carimi has lived up the high expectations placed on him, and he’s put his injury-plagued past behind him. He’s led the badgers in the trenches, and he’s proven to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation.
Top defensive player: J.J. Watt, DE
There are some other names on offense that could be thrown around to challenge Carimi, but on defense the top performer is crystal clear. J.J. Watt has stepped up every time the Badger defense has needed him, and he’s single-handedly covered up UW’s pass rushing issues.
Watt has been a force against the run with 13.5 tackles for loss. He’s also compiled five sacks despite seeing constant double and triple teams. The junior defensive end also has six pass break ups.
And if all that production wasn’t enough, Watt has blocked two kicks. He’s done it all as the one true playmaker on the Wisconsin defense.
Biggest surprise: James White, RB
James White came to Wisconsin from St .Thomas Aquinas high school with a ton of hype. The Florida native was a high-profile recruit who had an impressive highlight tape. We knew he would be good.
But no one could have predicted he would be this good this early.
White has looked like UW’s best running back at times this season. He’s rushed for 587 yards and has a 6.6 yard per carry average as Wisconsin’s second option in the backfield. The freshman has scored nine touchdowns, including the game-sealing score against Ohio State where he made three Buckeyes miss on his way to the endzone.
Biggest disappointment: Ends opposite Watt
With Watt garnering so much extra attention, there are opportunities to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the other side of the defensive line.
Unfortunately, defensive ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert have struggled to make an impact.
Nzegwu has two sacks and Gilbert has 1.5, but UW needs more consistent production from those two pass rushers. Wisconsin has struggled to get to the quarterback and that has been a weakness all season.
Most underrated player: Blake Sorensen, LB
Senior outside linebacker Blake Sorensen has been one of the most valuable members of this Badger team.
As a starter in Chris Borland’s absence, Sorensen has taken his game to a new level.
Sorensen leads the team in tackles with 48, and he’s tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. Despite a rash of injuries that ravaged the UW linebacking corps, he’s been steady all year and hasn’t missed a beat since seeing his role increase.
Best play: Gilreath’s 97-yard kickoff return
This one is nearly impossible to choose.
You can’t go wrong nominating Brad Nortman’s fake punt against Iowa, White’s touchdown run against the Buckeyes or Montee Ball’s inspired, game-winning score in Iowa City.
But the honor goes to senior wideout David Gilreath, who took the opening kickoff against OSU back for a touchdown.
With all the pressure building for that showdown with the No.1 team in the country, all the hype and energy, UW needed to start fast. Gilreath gave the Badgers a lead they never gave up, and after that touchdown you could feel the confidence and swagger coming from the UW sideline.
After so many losses to ranked teams, the Badgers finally knocked off Ohio State that night and UW carried the momentum from that victory all the way into Iowa City where they upended the Hawkeyes.
It all started with Gilreath’s 97-yard return, and since that play the Badgers have looked like a completely different team.