CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — One of the University of Wisconsin football team’s biggest plays Saturday in its 24-10 victory over Illinois became lost in the shadows of the offensive struggles, Jonathan Taylor’s injury, Joe Ferguson’s fourth-quarter interception and Michael Deiter’s trick-play touchdown.
After Alex Hornibrook threw an interception with UW ahead 7-0, outside linebacker Tyler Johnson bullied his way around right tackle Vederian Lowe and knocked the ball out of quarterback Jeff George Jr.’s hand just before he released a pass.
Defensive end Alec James recovered at midfield, allowing the Badgers to pull ahead by 14 and keep a comfortable distance the remainder of the game.
“They had some pretty big tackles, so I thought if I could stop his feet, I might be able to run the edge on him,” Johnson said. “As I came around, I saw the quarterback reaching back to throw it. … I just stuck my arm out there and found something.”
Johnson wouldn’t have been able to make that play earlier in the season because the sophomore didn’t begin the year in the regular rotation at outside linebacker.
He’s forced his way into meaningful playing time in recent weeks, and with plays like his strip-sack Saturday, those snaps will continue coming his way.
“Tyler’s done a great job of working and earning the right to play,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “The more opportunities you have, there’s more opportunities to make plays, and he’s done that the last couple games. That’s good to see.”
After sophomore Zack Baun sustained a season-ending left foot injury in August, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said the Badgers would stick with a three-man rotation at outside linebacker — starters Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs, along with junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel.
That held up the first few games of the season, and Johnson only played once UW was comfortably ahead. The Badgers played him for one meaningful series in the fourth quarter against Northwestern in their Big Ten opener, and outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar said the following week Johnson could eventually see an increased role.
Johnson played a season-high 13 snaps last week against Maryland after seeing just two reps versus Purdue the previous game, per Pro Football Focus, and earned even more Saturday with 16.
“I think I’m just putting myself in a position to show Coach Tibs that I know what my responsibilities are and he can trust me,” Johnson said. “If I show him the same thing I show him in practice, then that leads to more reps.
“I knew I would have my opportunities here and there … but I’d have to make the most of it and go forward from there.”
UW moves to No. 4
UW moved up one spot to No. 4 in The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches polls released Sunday.
The Badgers jumped ahead of TCU and Penn State, which lost to Iowa State and Ohio State, respectively.
The first College Football Playoff rankings will be released at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.