Nota bene: I charted Wisconsin’s last seven games for this project. The Badgers’ schedule was fairly backloaded this year - the average Massey composite ranking of the seven opponents I saw was #36, while the average for the six I missed was #70. For longtime readers, that means the numbers in this article should be in line with my typical in-season opponent analyses (in which I’m charting a team’s last three to five Power-5 opponents and avoid their games against cupcakes); however, they’ll be a bit softer than full-season reviews I’ve done in the past that included weaker opponents.
For context, be sure to read yesterday’s personnel breakdown of Wisconsin, to which this article will make reference. Also, Adam and I were lucky enough to chat with Asher Low of the Locked on Badgers podcast. Sorry for the rough audio in spots, I blame Mariotasmustache.
This offense is built around its rushing attack, which I tallied as about 58% efficient on a per-play basis given the down & distance prior to garbage time. That’s a few points lower than I was expecting and actually a bit worse than a few of Oregon’s opponents this year, but they make up for it in two ways: first, they seldom go backwards as only 8% of designed runs are for negative yardage; second, they’re great at getting chunk yardage rushes, with about 20% going for 10 or more yards.
The key to both the efficiency and explosion is #23 RB Taylor, one of the best backs I’ve ever seen:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - You don’t see this in the Pac-12 too often: all 22 players in the box. Great blocks across the board, especially nice by the LG and left FB to pull across the formation to lead block. #85 TE Sampson stays on his combo with the RT instead of hitting the LB, but Taylor adroitly sidesteps that free rusher and leaves him on his belly.
- :17 - Here’s an I-formation draw play, also fairly rare in the Pac-12. The o-line drops back as though in pass-protection, inviting the blitz and clearing the defensive interior (the MIKE is giving it away creeping up) then surges past them to block downfield while the defense looks around for the ball uselessly in the backfield.
- :40 - This outside zone run is supposed to go through the C-gap, and #60 RT Bruss does a great job clearing the backer from the lane. But both #78 RG Erdmann and #84 TE Ferguson lose control of their blocks and that gap closes, so Taylor bounces further outside and just breaks four tackles. This is one of the 17% of all Wisconsin runs I classify as “YACO” - the blocking wasn’t good enough to succeed but the back was.
- 1:02 - A fairly slow developing outside run lets the defense get into position, but it doesn’t matter - Wisconsin’s linemen know where they’re going and are so physically massive they make the defenders look like children; meanwhile Taylor’s smooth cuts through traffic let him maintain momentum the whole way.
Wisconsin complements their downhill attack with unconventional runs on about 15% of their rushing plays. These tend to be extremely hit-or-miss, with much higher explosion and negative yardage rates … they produced as many fumbles as touchdowns (four) in the games I watched. Some examples:
- :00 - Check out the misdirection on this endaround by #3 WR Pryor - there are eight blockers on this play, and half of them go backside while the other half slip in between them to block playside.
- :19 - The defense has been conditioned to ignore the WR motion as a fake for most of the game and instead key in on Taylor, so when #6 WR Davis actually gets the sweep handoff there’s a wall of five red jerseys between them and the ball.
- :34 - Wisconsin’s wildcat package features a read option, but while #1 WR Cruickshank is extremely fast, this long-ride handoff resulting in disaster was not a one-off event.
- :56 - Despite being an outside run, immediate penetration of the interior wrecks this reverse - it interrupts #34 FB Stokke coming underneath the formation to hit the end, which drives Pryor back inside where the defense has gotten in through the back door.
Where opposing rush defenses have been successful is attacking the o-line in ways that use their imposing size against them - they’re not incredibly athletic, particularly the tackles, and I noticed a surprisingly high rate of footwork problems. Some examples:
- :00 - Both the center and left tackle should be moving up to the second level on this zone run. But #61 C Biadasz falls down leaving a free rusher who forces the ball outside, and #71 LT Van Lanen never gets off his chip block to take care of the backer who makes the tackle.
- :19 - #68 LG Moorman lets his man through, and Biadasz turns to deal with it leaving the backer unblocked. Backup #37 RB Groshek doesn’t have Taylor’s same gifts for breaking tackles.
- :33 - The WILL gambles here and crashes on the run the instant the ball is snapped. That’s faster than Biadasz can get off his chip, and in whipping around to try to block him Biadasz picks up a holding flag.
- :50 - The defense has studied its film on this I-formation outside run and know it’s following the strongside to the boundary (the MIKE even calls it out at the snap). They get a fast jump and all move correctly playside, maintaining outside leverage and stringing this out to the sideline.
Situationally, this is clearly a run-first offense, rushing on about 70% of its 1st & 10s and virtually all short-yardage downs, and as they’re much more successful running than passing that makes sense. There’s also the expected 2:1 rush-to-pass ratio on 2nd & medium which matches up nicely with their success rates, so good playcalling there as well.
In longer yardage, however, I think they have more confidence in their passing game than is warranted: on 2nd & long they pass twice as often despite being much less successful than rushing in that situation. And that problem is even worse on 3rd down - they almost completely abandon the run with 4 yards to go or more, making their playcalling very predictable, and I tallied less than a quarter of 3rd & long conversions.
Formationally, this is a surprisingly diverse offense - they’re in the shotgun with an offset back about half the time, the next nearest cluster is under center with multiple TEs/FBs, and then an interesting amount of pistol, empty, and wildcats sets. They do a fairly good job of concealing the playcall with the QB/RB alignment - they’re a little more pass than run when offset, around 70% run when under center or in the pistol; tendencies that aren’t big enough for the defense to gamble.
The dead giveaway, however, is the tight end count: with none in they pass 80% of the time, with two or more in they rush 80% of the time. Towards the end of the year I saw opposing linebackers start to make guesses based on personnel and it frequently paid off.
The overall downfield passing efficiency is underwater at only a 47% success rate given the down & distance. With the loss of their only other long passing target to a leg injury, Wisconsin is down to just one wideout whom they trust on intermediate-to-deep routes: #87 WR Cephus. He does both efficiency and explosion: Cephus is the go-to receiver when they’re in 3rd & mediums, and while they only generate 20+ yard passing plays on about 8% of dropbacks, they’re virtually all his:
- :00 - The coverage on this comeback route is pretty tight, but the ball is placed high where Cephus can win with his size and vertical leap, and survive the hit with his grip strength.
- :21 - Cephus just burns the CB in man coverage on a quick stutter and go down the sideline … if anything the ball is underthrown, but this is impressive body control to go get the ball and land in bounds without any hope for the defender breaking it up.
- :45 - The defense gets suckered here - motioning the fullback to be the farthest receiver to the field realigns the zone coverage responsibilities - a CB on a FB is overkill, but Cephus in the slot against a plodding linebacker is a guaranteed score.
- 1:04 - Classic slant route against zone coverage that wins even without a blitz or play-action to suck up the linebackers. Instead the RB heading for the sideline draws out the WILL, the RG works the DT inside to open the lane, and the route is perfectly timed to fit right in between the backers.
Beyond the threat that Cephus poses, however, I’m just not wild about the rest of Wisconsin’s passing game. Every other receiving target is reserved for blocking or short routes, including a pretty good option in #84 TE Ferguson who’s really underutilized on seam routes. I don’t have a sufficient sample size to even evaluate the screen game since Wisconsin only attempts them on 3% of snaps, far lower than any other team I’ve studied in years. About 18% of dropbacks result in a sack, scramble, or throwaway due to pressure, which is somewhat higher than I expected from an o-line of this caliber. #17 QB Coan is not particularly mobile when the pocket begins to breakdown, and tends to stare down his target … and that’s usually first read, to Cephus, under any kind of pressure. Here’s a representative sample of problems in the passing attack:
- :00 - This is a poorly designed play, it’s two short routes on top of each other to the boundary vs zone coverage - clumped up targets in a cluttered throwing lane and the defense has numbers. That makes it way too easy for the flat/curl defender to sag off coverage and break on the ball.
- :14 - Smart for the LT and LG to double-team the best pass rusher, but the rest of the line is getting crunched hard on single blocks. The defense effectively disguised their zone coverage as man, and Coan has nowhere to go when his immediate targets are taken away. Reader, note how even with five receiving options, all are within 5 yards of the line except the TE, whom this secondary can cover without breaking a sweat.
- :30 - Cephus’ double move doesn’t create the separation he wants as the CB stays on top of him. Despite the zone coverage leaving the crossing route wide open for an easy gain in the same eyeline, Coan’s locked onto Cephus and tries it anyway with predictable results.
- :37 - All things considered, this is a pretty decent blitz pickup. But Coan panics and tries a throw to Cephus he’s got no business attempting, and doesn’t see that the fullback is wide open because the linebackers have messed up and both gone after the tailback.
Wisconsin’s defense is built around their four starting linebackers. What’s interesting is that they switch between a 2-4-5 and a 3-4 (swapping a nickel back for a nose tackle) depending on the offense’s tight end count, but always keep the same pair of OLBs and ILBs in the front.
In rush defense, the overall numbers come out to an almost perfectly even 50/50 success rate. However, breaking those plays down by type and front reveals some pretty stark disparities. Wisconsin defends inside runs at a 60% success rate, and that number climbs to over 69% when they have three down linemen or otherwise have seven in the box.
Some examples of their stout rush defense:
- :00 - The bear front does a great job occupying blocks and preventing the OL from climbing to the second level. Good squeezing down to keep the ballcarrier from getting outside - he’s got no choice but to run into #92 DE Henningsen’s belly as #56 OLB Baun is maintaining outside leverage.
- :08 - #95 NT Benton keeps both the center and RG engaged with him, allowing #54 ILB Orr and #57 ILB Sanborn to fill in and make the tackle.
- :15 - Wisconsin’s really crowding the line on this goalline defense, including bringing Orr down onto the LOS. He makes a choice to go right for the back and it pays off, while Baun and #93 DE Rand have beat their blocks and gotten inside.
The rush defense numbers really collapse, however, when the run goes outside - those are only defended at a 40% rate, and that falls to just 35% when they’re in a nickel package and only have six in the box. Here’s a representative sample of rush defense failures:
- :00 - The offense’s big spread gets Wisconsin in trouble here - no nose tackle and they’ve walked down both safeties to help deal with any short stuff, so there’s nobody deep to contain this big run after #97 DE Loudermilk gets worked inside and Sanborn can’t get off his block.
- :18 - Pretty basic outside zone run here. Just using one tight end means Wisconsin will only have six in the box, and that allows a combo block on the playside DL with the LG moving up to hit the undersized Orr. The backside safety is occupied by the read option, the CB is getting blocked out by the WR, and #25 S Burrell is slow to come down then whiffs on the tackle.
- :34 - While the bear front does effectively clog up inside runs, outside ones require keeping contain and Wisconsin’s LBs are often too aggressive to do so. Here #41 OLB Burks makes an inside move and loses the edge, which requires Sanborn to come down and across to make a leaping tackle attempt, with no one behind him to stop a big run down the sideline.
- :51 - Wisconsin is used to common read-options of the outermost line player, but has a lot of trouble with midline reads like this one. Sanborn is the read defender here; he comes down and stays on the QB (properly), but Orr screws up by following him into the same gap. Meanwhile Rand is getting completely reset by the combo block, which the LG doesn’t have to come off of because Orr is nowhere to be found.
Wisconsin’s per-play pass defense effectiveness is a bit better at 54%. But again that hides a big disparity: they’re very strong on the front end generating sacks and QB pressures, much less so on the back end in coverage and tackling.
The pass rush produces a sack, scramble, or throwaway on more than a quarter of all dropbacks, and they get another 7% forcing a bad throw with pressure. Some examples of a great pass rush:
- :00 - Really impressive to get three guys into the backfield when rushing just four, especially because #49 OLB Bell is a backup. Check out the wide open midfield on the back end, though.
- :13 - This sack showed both ways that Wisconsin gets you simultaneously: first, Baun just whipping the TE off the snap with an incredible burst; second, the DL separating the center from the guard/tackle combo and forcing the RB to come up and take on the ILB (Sanborn in this case but Orr’s even better at it) who just runs him over.
- :27 - Another way Wisconsin likes to attack is to swap the safety for the OLB on the rush. The LT sees Burrell coming which leaves the RB to obstruct Baun’s long path to the QB. After the CB widens to take away the first read, that dropping OLB helps take away the mesh concept in front of the QB. By the time an underneath throw comes open, Baun’s dispatched the back and gotten home.
If teams can survive the pass rush, especially blitz pickups, then they find some fertile ground against Wisconsin’s secondary. Between coverage and tackling issues, they have a real weak spot for surrendering big plays - 27% of all opponent snaps gain 10 yards or more, and 10.5% go for 20+ yards (Oregon’s numbers, by way of comparison, are 19% and 6.5%, respectively). Some examples:
- :00 - Here’s a fairly common play-action bootleg, and one of several plays in which a QB moving the pocket gives Wisconsin trouble. Baun completely buys into the play fake and lets the TE run right past him. Orr figures it out but he’s got too far to go before the QB makes the wide open pass, and then freshman starter #2 S Pearson gets run over trying to tackle.
- :20 - Nebraska Coach Frost took this play with him from Oregon, a smoke screen to the field with most of the defense sealed off and the RT going the long way. #5 DB Wildgoose and #21 CB Williams are getting blocked pretty effectively; Sanborn has a shot but overruns the play.
- :31 - Wisconsin simply loses the TE here; they’re clearly expecting a run play and the linebackers come way up, while #1 CB Hicks and #18 S Wilder gets caught in the rub trying to get to the back.
- :49 - I saw several RPO plays like this one effectively exploit Wisconsin’s aggressive defense -- the LBs are in conflict over the play action and the blitzing Pearson has vacated underneath coverage of the slant -- and the most puzzling part of my entire film study of this division is why more teams weren’t using it.