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Ejections spoil strong showing by Badgers defense against dynamic Wolverines offense
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Ejections spoil strong showing by Badgers defense against dynamic Wolverines offense

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Eric Burrell - UW vs. Michigan

Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell tackles Michigan quarterback Dylan McCaffrey in the third quarter of the Badgers' 35-14 win over the Wolverines on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. Burrell will have to sit out the first half of next week’s game against Northwestern after he was ejected for targeting in the third quarter of the win.

Eric Burrell should have been ecstatic after another dominating showing by the University of Wisconsin football defense.

So why was the junior safety so subdued following the No. 13 Badgers’ 35-14 win over No. 11 Michigan on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium?

A couple reasons, actually.

The biggest was that Burrell will have to sit out the first half of next week’s game against Northwestern after he was ejected for targeting in the third quarter against the Wolverines.

Ditto for redshirt freshman safety Reggie Pearson, who was ejected for targeting five plays after Burrell was sent to the locker room.

“I’ll still encourage the guys, whoever’s out there,” Burrell said. “Obviously, me and Reg are out for the first half next week, but whoever’s out there, we’re going to go out and do whatever we’re supposed to do.”

UW already was without sophomore safety Scott Nelson, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the opener against South Florida, meaning its depth chart at that position will be put to the test against the Wildcats.

Junior Collin Wilder has gotten plenty of reps as a backup this season, and junior Madison Cone, converted from cornerback in the offseason, also could be in the mix for more playing time. Sophomore Tyler Mais, a former Waunakee standout, and redshirt freshman John Torchio also saw action against Michigan after Burrell and Pearson were ejected.

“That’s big,” sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks said of losing Burrell and Pearson. “But at the end of the day, I believe in the guys that are behind him. It’s football, you’ve got to find a way. The other team’s not going to care about it, so you’ve just got to go into next week, get a game plan and find a way.”

The ejections put a damper on what was otherwise another impressive performance for the defense. Michigan was held to 40 rushing yards, went 0 of 10 on third down and turned the ball over four times.

Burrell had an interception and a fumble recovery, Wilder had a pick and senior inside linebacker Chris Orr recovered a fumble. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Zack Baun continued a great start to his senior season with two tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.

Orr and his teammates came into the game with ruffled feathers after hearing that Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson said during the week that the Michigan offense was going to make a statement after a slow start to the season.

That’s not exactly trash talk, but it was enough to light a fire under Orr and Co.

“We just take that as disrespect,” Orr said. “If somebody is telling you basically that they’re going to come (and) show out against you, that’s basically what he said. That’s just disrespectful.

“We’re the No. 1 defense in the nation for a reason. People like to negate the fact that we played some non-Power Five teams, but that doesn’t change what we’ve done. We’re going to keep doing it every week. It doesn’t matter who you put against us. They’re just nameless, faceless opponents.”

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Badgers 35, Wolverines 14
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Badgers 35, Wolverines 14
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Badgers 35, Wolverines 14
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Badgers 35, Wolverines 14

The Badgers got off to a rocky start. The first play of Michigan’s opening series went for 68 yards, when Burrell stretched out to break up a pass from Patterson and missed, giving Ronnie Bell an open field to the end zone. The only thing that prevented a touchdown that would have tied the game at 7 was the hustle of Hicks, who brought down Bell at the UW 8.

Two plays later, Pearson knocked the ball loose from Ben Mason and Burrell recovered at the 4.

“In that situation, it’s a catch tackle, so I was a little (ticked) off at that,” Burrell said. “But you know, you live and learn. Chris Orr and Zack Baun really helped me out, trying to get to the next play. It results in a fumble, I think it was Reg, and I picked it up, so it was a relief for me.”

The Badgers were cruising 35-0 when Burrell was flagged for a late hit on backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey as he slid. After a review, Burrell was sent to the showers for targeting.

“I’m not a ref for a reason,” Burrell said. “I went out there, did what I was supposed to do. They called targeting, I can’t do anything about that, just got to move on and get ready for next week.”

Pearson’s hit on a McCaffrey scramble was much more blatant. It was clearly helmet-to-helmet and required the training staff to attend to McCaffrey, who left the game and didn’t return. Unlike the targeting call on Burrell, this was a no-doubter.

“Things happen so fast,” Pearson said. “As I saw him come down, I was already in motion. Just playing fast as possible.”

Shortly thereafter, Patterson hit tight end Sean McKeon for a 6-yard touchdown pass. That ended a run of 162 minutes, 52 seconds without a point this season for UW opponents, which was another thing that soured Burrell’s mood.

“Obviously you want them to have a goose egg, but at the end of the day they’re playing for a reason, too,” Burrell said. “It’s frustrating, but we’re not playing for that. At the end of the day, if we win by one point, that’s what we’re willing to do.”

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