Jack Sanborn is an undisputed leader of the University of Wisconsin football team’s defense.
That fact is easy to learn as one hears the respect his teammates have for him, his play and how he handles himself away from the field. But what draws other people to the junior inside linebacker? What makes his peers look to him for advice and a spark on the field?
That’s harder to answer.
Maybe because it’s more than just one trait he possesses, or maybe because one would need to be around Sanborn each day to truly grasp it. But one thing’s for sure — Sanborn’s esteem among the Badgers is of the highest levels.
“He is a pro,” redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz said.
“In every aspect — leadership, on the field, the way he plays — he’s a pro, full stop. Someone’s going to get a great dude eventually. Love the dude he is off the field, too. He’s a genuine leader, everybody looks up to him.”
Heading into the UW’s game Saturday against Minnesota (3-3), Sanborn leads the Badgers (2-3) in tackles (36) and has aided in getting a pass rush with an increased role as a blitzer. They’ll arguably need his best game of the season to slow the Gophers’ rushing attack and help snap a three-game skid.
Getting Sanborn’s best in big moments has become the Badgers’ expectation as the end of his third year in the program draws closer.
“Gosh, Jack is a game-charger,” senior safety Collin Wilder said. “That’s kind of how he’s been since he’s gotten here. … We rely on him to be that guy for us day-in, day-out and he steps up every time.”
Hard to pinpoint
Jim Leonhard’s recall of moments and events is uncanny, especially when considering the years he’s spent in football. So when Leonhard, UW’s defensive coordinator, can’t pluck out a story that shows when Sanborn became one of the team’s leaders, it’s significant.
“I would say there’s not really that specific moment,” Leonhard said. “Some players there is — something happens, there’s adversity, they speak up, or with their play. I mean, I think it starts with just the consistency, one, with his play, but two, just personality and how he goes about day in and day out. You hear the small conversations he has with guys, motivating (them) and just continuing to push.”
Sanborn and the defense has been pushed to be nearly perfect the last three weeks as the Badgers’ offense has struggled to score points. Last week’s loss at Iowa was the first time the defense has allowed more than 17 points this season.
But through the difficult nature of the season and the losses of the past month, Sanborn has been a consistent presence both on and off the field. Leonhard credits that to Sanborn’s steady nature.
“Once guys respect that out of you, they know what they’re going to get day in and day out, I think they start to gravitate to that,” Leonhard said.
“And then all of a sudden you see the plays being made and all of a sudden you gain a little bit bigger voice. Then there’s another group of guys that kind of notice it and then all of a sudden you realize he’s got a great position in that locker room as far as being a leader. Doesn’t always have to be vocal — he can speak up when needed and he can also just say, ‘Just follow. Just follow my lead,’ and do that as well. So to me it with Jack, it really does start with that consistency.”
A stiff test
Led by Sanborn, the Badgers have the best rushing defense in the Big Ten Conference. The group ranks third in the FBS in allowing 83.2 rushing yards per game.
Minnesota will challenge that metric with a big offensive line and Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten’s running back of the year. Ibrahim leads the conference in rushing (925 yards), rushing touchdowns (15) and has become the lynchpin of the Minnesota offense. Minnesota averages about 50 more yards rushing in its wins than its losses.
“They’re probably the most vertical run team that we’ve played this year,” Sanborn said. “They want to get behind their pads and run north-south. They’ve got a big line and they’re able to do that. It’s going to be physical up front and we’re going to have to be more physical than them.”
Sanborn said before the season playing more confidently was one of his top individual goals.
Earlier in his career he felt as though he wasn’t trusting himself and what he saw on the field, which prevented him from making as many plays he believed he should. He says he’s grown in that area and he’s developed faith in the defense as a whole.
“I think just being confident not only in what I’m doing but also what everyone else is doing. Just kind of having that trust in everyone in the defense,” Sanborn said of his progress.
“I think that’s something that I have done well at. Because I look at the beginning of games last year and kind of don’t think I was that confident and not really making the right reads and not playing fast enough. I think that’s definitely something I’ve taken into (account) this year, but also continue to improve.”
The work Sanborn did during the modified offseason and the effort he continues to put in at practice and studying film stands out to UW coach Paul Chryst.
“He works at it, you know? He practices every day and in the offseason you know he put the time in,” Chryst said. “I also think that he’s smart enough to learn from the experiences that he’s had previously.
“(He’s) just more confident in the game and more knowledgeable on what you have to do to be successful. But he has been playing really good football and I love being around him and watching him play every game. I love seeing how he approaches each day. He’s talented, loves the game, works at it. You know, it’s not by accident that he is playing good football.”
Who has the edge when the Badgers host the Gophers?
Who has the edge when the Badgers host the Gophers?
UW is in one of the worst offensive stretches it’s had in decades. In three consecutive losses, the Badgers have scored nine or less points, the first time the program has failed to score in double-digits since 1990.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz (above) has missed opportunities for big plays with inaccurate throws and the number of weapons available to the offense continues to dwindle as injuries and COVID-19 issues mount.
Minnesota’s defense has been middle-of-the-road against the pass, allowing 12.3 yards per catch and 219 yards per game. UW’s offense has been lacking big plays in the passing game, gaining 9.7 yards per catch the past three weeks. A major concern for the Badgers is the health of the receiving corps. UW was without senior receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor last week, which hampered the offense and exposed a lack of depth at the position. Davis has missed the past three games. Junior tight end Jake Ferguson leads UW in catches (26), yards (249) and touchdowns (four), but opponents are focusing on taking him away and forcing other options to get open. Freshmen Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler may need to carry the load if Davis and Pryor are sidelined again.
Freshman tailback Jalen Berger was a late scratch from the lineup last week and could potentially miss more time. UW will not comment on an individual player’s COVID-19 testing, but Mertz — who had COVID-19 earlier this year — said he was concerned for Berger’s health. Berger is the Badgers’ leading rusher and most explosive ball-carrier. Minnesota’s been abysmal against the run, allowing 212.5 yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry.
EDGE | EVEN
After posting one of the best offensive seasons in the history of its program, Minnesota has taken a step back this year.
Losing a talented receiver such as Tyler Johnson to the NFL certainly hurt, but Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan isn’t the wildly efficient passer he was last season and the offense has reflected that. Morgan ranks fourth in the Big Ten at 206.6 passing yards per game and he’s thrown for just five touchdowns.
Minnesota lost its top offensive weapon when Rashod Bateman opted out after the team’s COVID-19 outbreak. Despite not playing in last week’s win against Nebraska, Bateman still leads the team in catches, yards and touchdowns. Chris Autman-Bell — who averages more than 20 yards per catch — is the team’s top receiving threat with 19 catches and 397 yards.
Stopping the run will be crucial this week for the Badgers’ front seven. Minnesota’s offense uses a heavy dose of run-pass options and is built on a foundation of between-the-tackles runs. The Gophers average 178.7 rushing yards per game in their losses and 220.3 in their wins. Mohamed Ibrahim (above)— who won the conference’s tailback of the year award this year — leads the Big Ten in rushing (925 yards) and rushing touchdowns (15), so the Badgers can expect to see him carry the ball often. Last season, UW held Minnesota to 76 rushing yards on 40 attempts.
UW’s inside linebacker duo of Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal have been tackling machines, with Sanborn’s 36 tackles leading the team while Chenal’s 28 are second. They’ve also been used often as blitzers, so expect them to be applying pressure to Morgan throughout the game.
EDGE | UW
Minnesota’s special teams have been subpar throughout the year as the specialist groups were among the first to be affected by COVID-19.
Starters missing games has led to the Gophers losing the field-position battle routinely. Mark Crawford has emerged as the top punter after he split time with Matthew Stephenson, but Crawford’s average kick of 38.3 yards ranks second-to-last in the Big Ten.
Kicker Brock Walker has gone 2-for-3 on field goals, all of which have been inside 40 yards, and the team isn’t getting much in the return game.
Punter Andy Vujnovich (above) has been a big improvement at the position for the Badgers. His average kick of 42.9 yards ranks sixth in the conference and he’s had 12 downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. He punted a season-high nine times last week against Iowa, three of which were downed inside the 20. Vujnovich has helped keep the Badgers in games as their offense struggles.
Only eight of Minnesota’s 32 kickoffs this year have gone for touchbacks, which should give UW’s Devin Chandler some chances in the return game. A reverse on a kick return last season helped spark the Badgers to a big second half.
EDGE | UW
Paul Chryst and the Badgers need to regroup after a tough few showings. Chryst’s decisions to punt inside the Northwestern 40 on a fourth-and-3 in the first half and to forgo a field-goal attempt early in the fourth quarter didn’t work out. The injury situation may limit what offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph is able to do this week, but UW should have the advantage in the run game to rely on.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has again built a top-tier defense in college football, and that group is one of the best against the run in the nation.
After losing offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State (2-5) in the offseason, coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers haven’t had the same explosive offense they featured a year ago. Couple that with a number of defense starters departing for the NFL and COVID-19 complications, Minnesota has been an inconsistent group that’s fortunate to be 3-2.
EDGE | UW
UW’s pride, especially on offense, has been shot offensively the past three weeks. Minnesota overcame missing about a third of its team last week to beat Nebraska.
How the teams handle their injury and COVID-19 absences this week will likely determine the game. Minnesota had 33 players unavailable last week, while the Badgers had six key players out last week.
This annual rivalry tilt doesn’t have nearly as much on the line as last year’s, which decided the Big Ten West Division winner, but a tough season for both programs would be aided by claiming Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
UW can salvage a .500 regular season with a win, while the Gophers can improbably post a winning year by topping the Badgers.
The home team has lost the last two games of this series.
EDGE | EVEN
In a strength-on-strength battle between Minnesota’s run game and UW’s run defense, the Badgers should be able to win out.
One would imagine the Badgers will study how the Iowa offense steamrolled Minnesota’s defensive front to the tune of 235 rushing yards for some ideas of how to control the game without needing to rely on an ailing group of receiving targets, but if Berger’s not in the backfield, UW doesn’t look to have enough explosiveness at tailback to take advantage.
GOPHERS 17, BADGERS 10
THE NUMBER (UW)
4.2: Yards per play for the Badgers the past three weeks, down from 6.1 in the first two games this season.
THE NUMBER (MINNESOTA)
154.2: Yards per game rushing for Mohamed Ibrahim, which is more than the Badgers have allowed any opposing team this season.
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Red-zone scoring: The Badgers have held scoreless on three of their past six red-zone trips, and only one of those three scores was a touchdown.
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Third-down conversions: The Gophers convert 49.3% of their third-down chances, which ranks second in the Big Ten, while the UW defense is the conference’s best on third down allowing conversions at a 23.3% clip.