Illinois State defensive front faces big job against powerful Wisconsin run game

Senior defensive lineman Noah Hickcox (99) and the Illinois State defense will face a challenge today against Wisconsin’s run game. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Slowing down the Wisconsin rushing attack isn’t a one-man job. For Illinois State senior nose tackle Noah Hickcox, that task falls on him and all 10 of his teammates on the field.

“The first thing that’s most important that we focus on as a defense is just doing your 1/11th when you’re out there,” Hickcox said. “You can’t worry about, ‘Is the guy next to me doing his job?’ It’s more about making sure that you do your job.”

Hickcox, a Minnesota transfer, will be an important 1/11th for the Redbirds in their season-opening game against the 18th-ranked Badgers of the FBS in Madison, Wis., on Saturday.

At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Hickcox is part of ISU’s 3-4 defense that will challenge a Wisconsin offensive line averaging 315 pounds. On the ground, Wisconsin’s running back duo of senior Chez Mellusi and sophomore Braelon Allen combined for 2,083 yards last season and 16 touchdowns.

“You have players on their side of the ball who are really good at breaking tackles,” Hickcox said.

The biggest plus for Hickcox and the rest of the Redbirds’ starting defensive line is they’ve played in a combined 57 career games, so they’re not likely to be intimidated in a Big Ten atmosphere.

“We have a lot of older guys who are playing really well and have played well over the spring and fall camps,” he said. “That’s only going to be to our advantage.”

This week’s opponent

Defense has become a major strength for Wisconsin over the past five seasons under coordinator Jim Leonhard, who has been on the coaching staff for a total of six years. During that time, Wisconsin ranks third nationally in scoring defense (17.3 points), first in total yards allowed (284.8) and first in pass efficiency defense (110.5). The Badgers have won 25 of their last 26 home openers. Their 20 consecutive seasons of bowl appearances is the third-longest current streak in FBS.

(6 p.m. kickoff; TV: FS1; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

Run vs. run: Both teams are well known for strong running games. For Illinois State, sophomore Cole Mueller returns as the starter after rushing for 977 yards a year ago. His backup, redshirt freshman Wenkers Wright, opened plenty of eyes in the spring game and fall camp. As for the Badgers, they have had nine players rush for at least 1,200 yards in a season over the past 11 years. Two players have piled up 2,000-yard seasons over that span.

What’s at stake?

Illinois State will try to win its second game in 10 tries all-time against a Big Ten opponent. The lone victory was ISU’s 9-7 triumph at Northwestern in 2016.

Quick hits

Senior defensive end Jason Lewan (34) and senior center Drew Bones (32) have the most career starts on the team entering Saturday’s game. … ISU junior Zack Annexstad, a Minnesota transfer, will be making his first start at quarterback since Oct. 20, 2018 against Nebraska, a span of 1,415 days. … Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh is the top returning tackler for the Redbirds with 73 stops. He is the only one of the team’s top five tacklers from last season who returned this year. … Illinois State will receive a $550,000 guarantee for playing at Wisconsin, according to HERO Sports FCS.

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