The senior seasons that University of Wisconsin linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr have put together didn’t seem likely at many points in their careers.
Their paths to on-field success were winding and hit valleys along the way. Both joined the football program with doubts about their ability they needed to shed. Both experienced season-ending injuries and sat behind great talent on the depth chart. Both had to push through the mental challenges those factors present as well.
But both always had each other. They were roommates their first three seasons at UW, growing as players and people together. That relationship has blossomed into the emotional backbone of the defense, which has exceeded expectations almost as much as the pair has individually.
“Within their own personalities, I think they’ve had a huge impact on this team,’’ UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I think they both put everything they had into every moment this year. I’m talking from first time we got back from winter break and started this and obviously have led and impacted this team on the field. But off the field they’ve been every bit as valuable to this team.
“It’s been fun to watch. I think they’re both truly putting themselves all into it, but I think they’re having a blast with this group, and that’s fun to see.”
When the No. 14 Badgers (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) play host to Purdue (4-6, 3-4) at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, they’ll honor the senior class, including Baun and Orr. They will be captains in their last game at their home stadium, a place where they’ve won 22 games and lost just five.
Who they are and what they mean to the Badgers is a testament to the drive each possesses and shares with their teammates, linebacker Jack Sanborn said.
“They play with a joy, a sense of passion that you can feed off of,” he said. “They’re always having fun out there, I’m always having fun out there with them, practice or games. You just see the passion that goes into football with them, how much the game means to them, how much they enjoy it.”
Paths finally merge
Baun and Orr were at different points of their development when they arrived at UW.
Baun was just beginning a transition to outside linebacker after playing quarterback in high school, while Orr was chomping at the bit to get on the field quickly.
“Coming in, I remember when we were freshmen in the dorm room when (Orr) told me how, right when we moved in, that he wanted to start,” Baun said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ Freshman wanting to start, that’s a big, big thing to say. But he ended up making a big impact right away.”
Orr backed up his words with his play, appearing in 10 games as a freshman. Baun said he wasn’t jealous of his roommate finding the field because he knew he needed to develop his body and learn the ropes of a new position at the college level.
Their sophomore seasons in 2016 looked to be when they’d finally be playing together, but Orr tore his ACL in the opener against LSU. While Orr rehabbed, Baun started to carve out a role for himself on special teams.
When Orr was healthy the next season, Baun suffered a broken foot during camp and didn’t play. Orr had a solid year, playing in 12 games and making eight starts. Those seasons also saw a crop of linebackers including T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy, Ryan Connelly, Garret Dooley and Andrew Van Ginkel assert themselves as starters, limiting the snaps Baun and Orr could take.
“It was definitely hard, probably more mentally than physically,” Orr said of those years. “You can push through anything physically. But it definitely made me mentally tough, a lot stronger and a lot more resilient than I ever thought I could be. It definitely helped me out a lot.”
Things finally aligned this season, with Baun and Orr taking over starting roles. They’ve been dominant from the start, with Orr leading the team in tackles (55) and sacks (10), and Baun becoming a force behind the line of scrimmage with 14 tackles for loss and 9½ sacks to go with 50 total tackles.
While playing well and anchoring a strong defense was the goal, Orr said being looked at as a leader is something he enjoys even more.
“I would say that’s more worth it than the stats and stuff like that. I’ve probably had the most fun doing that, to be honest. Playing is always fun, but I’ve had a lot of fun just being the leader,” he said.
Orr and Baun had back-to-back sacks against Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez in the first quarter last week, and it sparked a familiar back-and-forth.
They challenged each other to see who would finish with the most sacks — a bet made in multiple games this season. Baun won the in-game battle by getting another sack in the third quarter, but Orr still holds the season lead.
“It’s turned into kind of a competition now,” Baun said. “It’s just fun that we both have been able to develop and we’re finally out there playing together and playing good football.”
Both have been destructive to opponents’ game plans, with Baun coming off the edge and Orr rushing from a number of spots. UW is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have two players with 8½ or more sacks. If Baun can record a half-sack over the next two weeks, he and Orr will become the first UW pair to account for 10 or more sacks in the same season since Tarek Saleh (14) and Bryan Jurewicz (10) in 1996.
Orr laughed when asked about the competition with Baun.
“We’ve got to have him drop in coverage more. That’s the problem,” Orr said through a smile.
“I would never tell him this, it’s a little skewed because he’s rushing way more than me. But that competition’s going to stay alive. Hopefully have him drop a little more, that’s the only way he’s not going to get one.”
Setting an example
Senior Days are times of reflection and appreciation.
Baun and Orr have learned to appreciate the time they get on the field, especially together, because at so many points in their careers that wasn’t possible.
“Me and Zack came in here together and now to see it all come together with us leading the team together, it’s definitely surreal at times but definitely fun,” Orr said.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has lauded Baun’s maturation this season, both as a player and as a leader, and the way Orr has stepped up his play as his role increased.
While their paths to this moment weren’t straight or smooth, Baun and Orr have become examples of sticking to the plan and continuing to overcome challenges.
“I think it’s huge for a program when you have guys that you just see go through it all. I’ve said it about Chris before, Zack, put him in the same boat. They’ve had the full college football experience,” Leonhard said. “Play early, have an injury, depth and great players in front of them so now you’re waiting your turn, and just fighting through all of that, continuing to get better, not feeling sorry for yourself, accepting the roles that you’re in. By the time you get to your junior, senior years and it’s your time to roll, being productive and making plays and turning into a great leader. They really have been through all of it. They’ve seen it all.
“It’s huge for a program because that’s the norm. It’s not come in and play as a true freshman, it’s not come and be a starter as a redshirt freshman and be an All-American or All-Big Ten type of player — that’s not the norm. We all love that guy, we want as many as possible, but the norm is that you’re going to have adversity and you’re going to have to push through it.”
<&rdpStrong>No. 14 Badgers vs. Purdue: Who has the edge?</&rdpStrong>
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
The Badgers enter this game with their run game rolling.
They churned out 300 yards on the ground against Iowa two weeks ago, and put up 320 last week at Nebraska. Junior running back Jonathan Taylor (above) had 454 of those yards as he climbed the Big Ten and national record books with his performance against the Cornhuskers. That trend has a good chance of continuing against Purdue, which is in the bottom half of the Big Ten and in the middle of the pack nationally with 172.2 rushing yards allowed per game.
UW leaned on its ground game to seal wins in its past two games, and did so while using mostly two-tight end or two-running back sets. Wide receivers have been a big help in the run game as well, adding an element of speed via jet sweeps.
UW receiver Danny Davis scored twice in the fourth quarter to force last year’s meeting into overtime, and the Badgers came away with a triple-overtime victory. Look for Davis to play a significant role in this year’s game as well.
Purdue’s defense is led by linebacker Ben Holt, whose 99 total tackles are second in the Big Ten. Holt, a graduate transfer from Western Kentucky, is the son of Purdue co-defensive coordinator Nick Holt.
EDGE | UW
WHEN THE BOILERMAKERS HAVE THE BALL
A season with a great deal of promise for Purdue has been derailed due to injuries to its top offensive weapons.
It started with a September game against Minnesota, when quarterback Elijah Sindelar (broken collarbone) and receiver Rondale Moore (left hamstring) went down. Jack Plummer filled in for Sindelar, but he broke his ankle earlier this month against Nebraska.
Aidan O’Connell (above) is now under center for Purdue, and he's engineered winning drives in the fourth quarter against Nebraska and Northwestern the past two weeks. Freshman David Bell has become the go-to receiver, as his 65 catches, 791 yards and five touchdowns are all team-bests. Payne Durham, a 6-foot-5 tight end, has been a threat in the red zone, scoring four touchdowns on eight catches. UW’s secondary will be tested with this passing attack, which ranks second in the Big Ten.
The Boilermakers don’t run the ball much or effectively (76.8 yards per game), which means the Badgers’ pass rush will have a lot of chances to get after O’Connell.
If senior Zack Baun can register ½ a sack or more, he and Chris Orr (10) will become the first pair of Badgers to tally 10 or more sacks in the same season since Tarek Saleh (14) and Bryan Jurewicz (10) in 1996.
EDGE | UW
UW had one of its better days of the season on special teams against Nebraska. Sophomore Aron Cruickshank (above) boosted his kick-return average to a Big Ten-best 28.4 yards after taking a kick 89 yards to the end zone, sophomore Collin Larsh went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts, and senior punter Anthony Lotti pinned the Cornhuskers at the 4 with one of his two punts.
Moore’s injury took away Purdue’s best kick/punt returner, but Jackson Anthrop has taken over both roles with some success. J.D. Dellinger is 10 of 12 on field goals this year, including 10 of 10 inside 40 yards. Purdue uses multiple punters — Zac Collins for rugby-style kicks and Brooks Cormier for traditional punts — and both average about 40 yards per try.
EDGE | PUSH
The Boilermakers were able to retain coach Jeff Brohm (above) this year after Louisville pushed hard to hire him in the offseason, and he’s delivered a good coaching performance despite the injuries his team has suffered.
Half their losses are one-score defeats, and they won two straight Big Ten games before a bye last week. Brohm’s creativity on offense and quick production from freshmen has shown his skill in getting players ready on the fly.
UW’s Paul Chryst has his team back on track and in a position to win the Big Ten West Division if it can win out. How defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard adjusts his unit to the spread offense it sees this week will be critical after allowing a season-high 493 total yards at Nebraska.
EDGE | UW
The Badgers’ stretch run got a shot of energy when Iowa knocked off Minnesota last week, giving them a path to the Big Ten West Division title once again. That, coupled with the final game at Camp Randall of the season, should give UW a wave of energy to use.
The Badgers also know what can happen when overlooking an opponent, so they won’t take Purdue lightly. The Boilermakers are trying to make a push for bowl eligibility — they need to win out to get to six wins.
EDGE | UW
STATE JOURNAL PICK
Too much is riding on this game for the Badgers not to come out with energy and get an early lead. Purdue will make some plays, but Jonathan Taylor and the offensive line will churn out another win to set up a winner-take-all matchup at Minnesota. Purdue’s losing streak against UW will reach 14 games.
BADGERS 35, BOILERMAKERS 21
THE NUMBER (UW)
6.97: Yards per play over the past two games for the Badgers
THE NUMBER (PURDUE)
42.6: Pass attempts per game for the Boilermakers, which leads the Big Ten and is third-most in the FBS
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Third-down conversion defense: UW’s mark of .242 leads the FBS, even after Nebraska went 6 of 12 last week on third down
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Fumbles recovered: Despite forcing 11 fumbles, Purdue’s three fumble recoveries rank tied for 122nd in the nation