MADISON, Wis. — T.J. Edwards called it the easiest play he may ever make, a lame-duck dropped pass that fluttered and simply fell into his arms. That part may be true. But the fact Edwards put himself in the right spot to make a game-changing play was hardly coincidental or unusual.
Edwards, Wisconsin’s standout inside linebacker, has been among the Badgers’ most consistent players the past two seasons. On Friday night, he was at it again during Wisconsin’s 59-10 victory against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium, swarming the ball and making plays to help stem the tide of an uninspiring first half.
He began to pick up steam early in the second quarter, when he tallied 3 tackles on one drive to force a Utah State punt. Wisconsin used its next offensive possession to score its first touchdown of the game on tailback Bradrick Shaw’s 3-yard run, which trimmed the Badgers deficit to 10-7.
Then came one of the plays that sparked Wisconsin on its comeback bid.
Utah State had the ball at its own 21-yard line with 1:08 remaining before halftime. Aggies quarterback Kent Myers threw short to tight end Carson Terrell, which slipped out of his hands and right to Edwards. Wisconsin took over at the Utah State 18, and kicker Rafael Gaglianone buried a 29-yard field goal as time expired to help the Badgers enter halftime tied at 10.
Edwards wasn’t made available to the media after the game, but he did speak to UWBadgers.com to discuss the play.
“Hit the guy in the shoulder pads, and it bounced right to me,” Edwards said. “Any time you get turnovers, you can spark just the whole team. I think that’s something we weren’t doing so well in the beginning of the game. They were moving the ball on us. I think just being more hungry for those big-time plays and making them when we get the opportunities, and I think we did toward the end of the game.”
Edwards finished the game with 7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception and 2 pass breakups. Those breakups occurred in the span of three plays during the third quarter, leading to a turnover on downs and an eventual Wisconsin touchdown for a 38-10 lead.
“Every time I looked, he was celebrating,” Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal said.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said the final two minutes of the first half were critical for the team to get back on track. Before that stage, Utah State led 10-0 and threatened to secure a monumental upset against a team with national championship aspirations. Afterward, the Badgers outscored the Aggies 59-0.
“It was big because we hadn’t done anything,” Chryst said. “I liked the response that the offense had on the long drive. Then to go out and you’re not sure how a team’s going to play kind of at the end-of-a-half situation, but it was a big play and we needed something to go our way. You can’t wait for it. You’ve got to go make it happen. I thought offensively they did, and then T.J. was opportunistic on it and that was big.”
Edwards has led the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons and is in position to do so for a third consecutive season. The last time a Badgers player accomplished the feat was Pete Monty from 1994-96. And Edwards has excelled almost from the day he arrived on campus. He earned freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America in 2015. He was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last season and earned Cotton Bowl defensive MVP honors after recording 10 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception against Western Michigan.
Edwards’ role this season has grown in importance given the season-ending right ACL injury fellow starter Jack Cichy sustained during fall camp. Now, Wisconsin’s defense will rely even more heavily on the inside linebacker trio of Edwards, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly, who combined for 17 tackles against Utah State.
“We are the heartbeat of that defense,” Orr said. “We have the most experience besides the D-line. Those guys aren’t the most vocal, but when they need to, they’ll say something. I think we just have to embrace more of a leadership role. When times get tough, we need to make those plays when everybody is looking to us to make those plays.”
On Friday night, it was Edwards’ turn to make those plays, as he has so often done in a Badgers uniform.
“First game, you never know what can happen,” Edwards said. “I think the guys got the jitters out. Now it’s time to go. We definitely came out slow. We can’t do that if we want to win these big games. It was good just to be out there with the guys, and I think everyone’s ready to go now.”
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