ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The last thing the depleted secondary for the University of Wisconsin football team needed Saturday night was the absence of its most experienced player.
But that was bad news the No. 15 Badgers received prior to their pivotal matchup with No. 12 Michigan at Michigan Stadium.
Senior safety D’Cota Dixon, by far the elder statesman in the back end of UW’s defense, sat out the game with a right foot injury.
Dixon limped off the field late in the Badgers’ 41-24 home win over Nebraska last week and showed up for media availability on Monday wearing a protective boot. Dixon told reporters he’d play against the Wolverines, but it was decided he couldn’t go after he went through pregame warmups Saturday.
UW already was without its other starting safety, Scott Nelson, to start the game. The redshirt freshman had to sit out the first half after being ejected from the Nebraska game for targeting.
As a result, the Badgers began the game with a secondary that was filled with inexperience.
Sophomore Eric Burrell and true freshman Reggie Pearson started at safety. It was the first career start for both players; for Pearson, it was his collegiate debut.
Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Deron Harrell and true freshman Rachad Wildgoose started at cornerback. Sophomore Faion Hicks saw action on the first series before leaving the game with a left leg injury.
UW was also playing without sophomore defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk (left leg).
UW’s young defense actually held up well in the first half, and Nelson was back in the lineup to start the second half.
Prior to last week, Nelson had been flagged for targeting once in his career.
Back during his sophomore year at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, the only punishment Nelson faced for his illegal hit was a 15-yard penalty.
The sentence was much more severe this time for Nelson, who was flagged for targeting late in the third quarter last week. After his helmet-to-helmet hit on Nebraska running back Maurice Washington was reviewed, Nelson was ejected from the game.
“It wasn’t my intention to hit him helmet to helmet,” Nelson said earlier this week. “I think if I wanted to spear him and hit him helmet to helmet, it might have looked a little different. But it was helmet to helmet and that’s the biggest thing is I’ve got to focus on is how I can eliminate that.”
A rule put into effect in 2013 led to steeper punishment for players who were flagged for making contact with defenseless opponents above the shoulders. In addition to the existing 15-yard penalty, the rule added an automatic ejection as officials tried to address concern about player safety.
If the foul occurs in the first half of the game, the player is ejected for the remainder of the game. If the foul occurs in the second half, as it did in Nelson’s case, the player is ejected for the first half of the next contest.
When asked if he thought the rule was fair, Nelson said, “That’s the rule. I hit the guy helmet to helmet, so that’s the rule.”
Nelson was required to spend the first half in the visiting locker room at Michigan Stadium. He said this week that he was going to contact Jack Cichy to pick the brain of the former UW outside linebacker about how to best utilize that time so he could be ready for the start of the second half.
Cichy was suspended for the first half of the Badgers’ victory over USC in the 2015 Holiday Bowl after getting flagged for targeting in the second half of the regular-season finale against Minnesota. Cichy ended up recording three sacks in two quarters of action during UW’s 23-21 win over the Trojans.
Nelson’s biggest concern during the week was doing everything he could to get his replacement ready for the Wolverines.
“Whoever goes out there, I’ll have confidence in,” said Nelson, who was offered a scholarship by both Michigan and Michigan State. “Right now I’m trying to prepare the same way, trying to help them, trying to get an idea of what I think it will be like, what they can look for and stuff like that.
“It’s very frustrating anytime you have miss time because of something like this or an injury. It’s very frustrating, just because you want to help your team as much as you can. … We’ll get the other guys ready and then I’ll be ready for the second half.”