MADISON - In putting together a list of the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten, four names quickly come to mind: Cameron Heyward, Adrian Clayborn, Ryan Kerrigan and J.J. Watt.
Of those four, Wisconsin has faced two, Heyward and Clayborn, in their two biggest wins of the season over then-No. 1 Ohio State and at Iowa. Watt, of course, lines up at defensive end on a weekly basis for the Badgers, earning a number of national honors in recent weeks.
That leaves Kerrigan, the Purdue Boilermakers defensive end, and the third in a line of three straight high-profile defensive stars on the schedule for UW. While the other three may get more press, Kerrigan could very well be the best of the bunch.
"To this day, I think that Ryan Kerrigan, their defensive end, is probably one of the premier players in our league," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "I really thought last year he was at a whole other level. [He] plays extremely hard, extremely gifted."
Through eight games this season, Kerrigan leads the Big Ten in several defensive categories, including sacks with 7.5 and tackles for loss with 18.5. Ranking fourth and second in those categories, respectively, is Watt with five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss.
Kerrigan's three forced fumbles also tie him with Michigan State's Greg Jones for the most in the conference, with the Boilermakers having played one fewer game than MSU. With 49 tackles and a 6.1 tackles per game average, Kerrigan is 21st in the conference, while Watt ranks 47th.
"I probably went up against him once or twice, maybe," said John Moffitt, referring to Kerrigan. "Obviously he's very strong, and he's got a little bit of speed to him, too. He's not just a bull rush guy. He's a good player, he plays hard and that's evident when you watch him on film for sure."
Against the Badgers, the top performer among Heyward, Clayborn and Kerrigan last season was Kerrigan, who had a game-high nine tackles, 2.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.
In his last two games against UW, Clayborn has 11 tackles, three for loss, and two sacks. For Heyward, the last two battles against Wisconsin have yielded nine tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack.
Having faced all three, how does Gabe Carimi assess their abilites?
"I'd say Heyward is more of a bull [rusher], Clayborn would be a speed and bull guy, and Kerrigan is a motor guy," Carimi said. "He'll keep driving his legs, moving around, ripping under and twisting his body. I think he gives unbelievable effort on film and that's why I think he might be a better defensive end."
Having come away with victories over the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes this season, while limiting Heyward and Clayborn along the way, the Badgers now turn their focus toward Kerrigan and the Boilermakers.
While they certainly respect Kerrigan and consider him among the conference's elite, the Wisconsin offensive line has plenty of reason to believe they'll come out on top when they head to West Lafayette, Ind., for Saturday's contest.
"I know he's a great defensive end, and I think he is the best in the conference," Carimi said. "But I'm coming in there with a little bit of confidence and trying to pull out a solid performance against him."
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