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Observations & Questions: Wisconsin Personnel Breakdown

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Notes from watching the Badgers’ last seven games

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

This is the first of two film study-based previews of Wisconsin, breaking down the Badgers’ personnel and basic game strategies. Tomorrow’s article will go into more depth with video review and statistical analysis of formations, situational playcalling, and the efficiency metrics.


Offense

To say this is a run-first offense is an understatement - they rush on 70% of 1st downs and virtually all short-yardage situations. It’s about 2:1 zone-blocking vs power, usually multiple tight ends or a fullback, mostly straight handoffs but with some read-option, sweeps, and even the wildcat mixed in. The passing game feels like a grudging concession to the invention of the forward pass, being used mostly in obvious situations - focusing on short-to-intermediate routes to pick up the necessary yardage to get back to running, and relatively rare deep shots.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs

The star of the show is two-time Doak Walker award winner #23 RB Taylor, who personally accounts for about 40% of Wisconsin’s total yardage. He’s everything you want in a rusher: both great acceleration and top end speed, quick smooth cuts in traffic, excellent vision, very difficult to bring down without perfect tackling form. He’s not just getting what the offensive line buys for him, either - I tallied over 20% of his runs getting significant yards after contact. I thought his Heisman snub was unconscionable.

The two backups are #14 RB Watson and #37 RB Groshek, who are fairly reliable but lack Taylor’s star power. They’re not really change-of-pace guys either - that’s reserved for wide receiver runs like endarounds and an interesting wildcat package.

It doesn’t affect the offense much (since 3-second, survey-the-field passing plays aren’t a big part of it), but my criticism of this unit is that they don’t help the passing game much. None of the three grade out as top-notch pass-pro blockers on my tally sheet, and while Taylor and Groshek’s hands out of the backfield (Watson wasn’t used at all as a receiver) are pretty good, to my surprise this offense uses screens rarely and ineffectively. With a few notable exceptions, the RB targets are usually dumpoffs and checkdowns where the defense has essentially already won the down with coverage.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterback

Starting #17 QB Coan is a solid, efficient passer - rarely puts the ball in danger, good zip on quick throws like slants, very high completion rate albeit mostly on pretty short throws and single-read plays. I think he’s got the arm talent to hit the whole field, though truly deep passes were so rare I didn’t get much of a sample … the biggest passing plays were mostly of the run-after-catch variety.

He’s not particularly mobile (he had a couple heroic runs in the B1G championship but those are pretty clearly outliers on the season that the defense wasn’t expecting), and most backfield penetration results in a sack or a throwaway. But I’m impressed that on read-option plays when the defense crashes on the back, he pulls without hesitation and has a pretty good success rate on such runs.

The biggest flaw in his game that I saw was that he tends to lock onto his first read and really stare him down, especially if there’s a blitz or he senses any kind of pressure (even if it’s picked up), and I don’t see any real manipulation of the defense.

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Wide receivers

There’s an interesting divide in the receiving targets: intermediate and deep routes are almost entirely reserved for their top receiver, #87 WR Cephus -- which makes sense, he’s tall, fast, great hands, good vertical -- while the rest of the wideouts get the flats, crossers, quick outs, and other short stuff. That’ll be #3 WR Pryor and #6 WR Davis, since #4 WR A.J. Taylor is out with injury, #1 WR Cuickshank is only used as a runner, and #16 WR Dunn as a blocker.

Combined with Coan’s limitations, this split tends to make the passing attack fairly predictable, and better secondaries have held it in check - in eight of 13 games, Wisconsin generated under 200 passing yards, and three of those under 130. I tallied less than 8% of dropbacks resulting in a 20+ yard gain.

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Tight ends & Fullback

All three of the primary blockers here -- #84 TE Ferguson, #85 TE Sampson, and #34 FB Stokke -- have very good quality-block ratios on my tally sheet, and at least one of them is in on the play about 85% of the time. These guys are big and aggressive, and the TEs aren’t just edge blockers, they’ll lead block and run split-zone to the middle of the formation.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Sampson get the ball, but Stokke gets a few surprise handoffs out of the I-formation and an occasional designed passing play wrinkle. Ferguson is a pretty good pass-catcher and I think if anything he’s under-utilized, since I rarely saw him release downfield and when he did it was usually short out routes or the low part of a bootleg high-low read, not so much the glamorous seam route for big yardage.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Iowa at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Offensive line

This line is excellent, and a lot bigger than most of Oregon’s Pac-12 opponents. It’s a fairly deep group as well; I tallied eight different linemen getting starts due to someone missing a game or two. I believe the starters in the Rose Bowl will be #71 LT Van Lanen, #68 LG Moorman, #61 C Biadasz, #78 RG Erdmann, and #60 RT Bruss. All are over 6’3” and more than 300 lbs, and none are freshmen.

Pass blocking is very good, especially the middle of the line where Erdmann and Biadasz (winner of this year’s Rimington trophy) are both at under an 8% pressure rate on my tally sheet, which is my threshold for elite pass protection. If there’s a vulnerability it’s at the tackles, especially Van Lanen who I believe has struggled with injuries at the end of the season and looks to me like he might have been a step slower in the conference championship.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Michigan at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rush blocking is very consistent across the board, no personnel standouts in terms of strengths or weaknesses. It’s a relatively complex blocking scheme -- this isn’t a pure line ‘em up and smash ‘em football I’ve heard some lazier commentators describe it as -- with a variety of zone plays and formations, and the power blocking features lots of traps, counters, draws, and misdirection plays. If I have a criticism it’s that the emphasis is clearly on size rather than impeccable technique - even the best o-lines make some mistakes, but I was surprised that I’d tallied their error rates a few points higher than I’d have expected with a rushing offense this productive. Partly that’s a testament to how good Taylor is as a back, but I also think some opposing defensive fronts just got overwhelmed by the OL’s size and let even bad blocks open adequate gaps.


Defense

It’s difficult to put a label on Wisconsin’s base defensive structure because they switch between a 3-4 and a 2-4-5 depending on the offensive personnel: they put in a nose tackle and go to a bear front if you have two or more tight ends in, and pull him in favor of an even-front with a nickel back if you have one or none. The one consistent factor is they always play the same four linebackers - two OLBs on the line and two ILBs at depth.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Iowa at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Linebackers

This unit is the strength of the defense and I believe why the same four starters play virtually every snap, barring injuries. It looks like despite losing two during the conference championship, they’ll have all four ready to play in the Rose bowl - good news for the Badgers as the dropoff to the backups is noticeable.

The starters are #41 OLB Burks, #56 OLB Baun, #54 ILB Orr, and #57 ILB Sanborn. Baun is an outstanding pass rusher, with both a nice spin move and out-in an cross step to get past tackles. Orr’s sacks are more situational -- they mostly come against offenses that can’t figure out center vs RB pass-pro responsibilities for an A-gap blitz -- but he certainly has the speed and aggression to make such teams pay for it and that makes up for being a little undersized for the position.

The backers are excellent at defending inside runs, but my criticism is that they get too aggressive and lose discipline on deception plays - on outside runs that start by pressing inside they’ll lose contain easily as the OLBs tend to bite and cut in, leaving the ILB to cover a long distance to the edge when the back bounces outside, and on play-action passes they have a tendency to get pulled in and leave underneath throwing lanes open.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 Big Ten Championship Game Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensive line

The d-line structure is two ends on every down, and as mentioned above, a nose tackle who rotates in or out based on the offensive set. #95 NT Benton appears to have taken up all snaps when a tackle is in since #91 NT B. Williams was injured midseason; that doesn’t seem to have hurt his effectiveness though.

The ends are basically on the three-man rotation of #97 DE Loudermilk (who gets the most snaps and has impressive length on a 6’7” frame), #92 DE Henningsen, and #93 DE Rand. All three are quite effective taking on single blocks but can be displaced by a good combo block, which is again why the backers are the fulcrum of the defense.

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Secondary

It’s hardest for me to evaluate defensive backs of any unit, because the broadcast angles tend to cut off the deep backfield and if a DB is really doing his job well the ball (and therefore the camera) never goes to him. That said, I’m willing to go out on a limb here because I feel the secondary is shaky and giving up big plays has been the Achilles’ heel of this defense.

The safeties strike me as fairly inconsistent. I generally like watching #2 S Pearson play, he gets used as a surprise blitzer and he hits hard and fast, but he’s also a freshman and he sometimes plays like it. I’m not sure #25 S Burrell or #18 S Wilder have the same excuse, they’re both juniors and I’ve got a whole lot of missed tackles on my tally sheet for them.

I think that #1 CB Hicks is a solid if unspectacular corner, and he’s not picked on too often. But that’s hard for me to parse because #21 CB C. Williams is the complete opposite - most throws go against him, and while some games he plays lights-out and comes up with clutch break-ups and interceptions, in others he gets torched all night long. I also find those starting choices confusing, because when #5 DB Wildgoose had to play corner due to the domino effects from a targeting ejection of a safety, I thought he provided the best coverage Wisconsin had. But normally Wildgoose is the nickel, and he gets rotated out half the snaps due to the defensive structure.

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