Ryan Connelly walked on to the Wisconsin team as a quarterback. Leading up to his arrival, he did everything he could to move off the position.
“I tried to put on as much weight as I could so I wouldn’t be a quarterback anymore,” Connelly told the school’s website Wednesday. “I didn’t think I could be a D-I quarterback. I thought I was going to play quarterback the first day I was here until the coaches texted me and said why not go to linebacker. That’s what I wanted to do.”
The switch paid off Saturday when the then-unranked Badgers upset fifth-ranked LSU, 16-14, at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. It lifted Wisconsin from unrated to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll.
Per the A.P., the ranking matches a record for the best season debut in the Top 25. Arizona also went from unranked to 10th in 2014 after winning at Oregon.
Connelly (6-3, 235) played a large but unpredicted role in his team’s season-opening victory. The Eden Prairie (Minnesota) High graduate replaced injured starter Chris Orr at inside linebacker and tied for second on the team with seven tackles.
Connelly is expected to receive his first college start Saturday when the Badgers host Akron (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN). Orr will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury, the school announced.
“I thought Ryan did an excellent job,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “To be honest with you, it wasn’t real surprising. Ryan’s shown improvement since I’ve been here. It was just a chance for him to go out and play and I thought he played totally under control and did a really good job.”
Connelly’s teammates enjoyed seeing “uncle” have success.
“We call him the uncle because he’s got a receding hairline already,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst is hoping Orr’s injury can serve some good despite how disappointed he is for the sophomore. The Badgers are heavy favorite against a MAC opponent a week after pulling perhaps college football’s biggest upset of the season. It’s a classic “letdown” spot.
“We have 12 games on our schedule and hopefully we earn the right to play more but nothing is guaranteed. You see that with Chris Orr. He spent a ton of time and he’ll be done for the season,” Chryst said.
The Badgers are displaying the right kind of attitude leading up to Saturday’s Akron game, Chryst said. He hasn’t sensed overconfidence or satisfaction.
The coach is preaching that in order for Wisconsin to reach its goals, it must attack every game like it attacked LSU.
“I will be important for us is to stay in the moment and enjoy those moments. It’s not about talk. It’s about actions. I think that (the players) see that we can be a lot better. I didn’t need to prod the guys or tell them what to think. That’s what I was pleased to hear from them,” Chryst said.
Akron opened the season with a 47-24 victory against VMI. The Zips, coached by former Auburn front man Terry Bowden, rolled up 576 yards of offense.
“Offensively, they’ll spread you out. The quarterback (Thomas Woodson) has a really strong arm but is also a good runner. The running back (Warren Ball) is a really good running back. They’ve got some receivers (Jerome Lane, Jojo Natson, Austin Wolf) that can run and have size. It’s going to stress us different than last week,” Chryst said.
Woodson completed 23 of 32 passes for 407 yards and six touchdowns against one interception last week. Ball rushed 18 times for 110 yards and a score. Lane caught 10 balls for 196 and two scores, while Natson hauled in 4 for 90 and three TDs.
Akron’s defense, on the other hand, proved porous against VMI. The Zips allowed 386 yards, including 300 through the air.
First-year starting quarterback Bart Houston experienced a mixed bag for Wisconsin against LSU. He completed 12 of 21 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, but also tossed two picks.
“Overall, I thought Bart was himself in the sense that it felt like he could compete and I thought he did a great job of competing. Some of the throws that were pretty clean for him, he made them. He was accurate on a lot of his throws,” Chryst said.
Chryst said Houston’s performance reflected that of his team. Despite the big win, the Badgers left a lot on the field.
“It was great to get the season going and obviously a good win versus a really good team,” he said. “What I’m also excited about is that there’s a lot of areas we can get better and need to get better for us to be the best team we can be.”
Wisconsin will do so with a new starter at inside linebacker. Uncle Connelly is ready.
“You still have to attack practice the same way. I don’t think anything has changed as far as practicing for me. As an inside linebacking crew, we all practice as if we could play and we all have the confidence that we could play at any moment,” he said.