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Unsung heroes of 2013: The Wisconsin defensive line

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Ranked seventh in Defensive S&P with dominant victories over much of the B1G, Wisconsin has trucked along this season, but arguably the Badgers' strongest unit has labored in relative obscurity.

Joe Robbins

The Wisconsin Badgers aren't particularly well-regarded across the College Football world of 2013. They are currently ranked 19th in the BCS rankings and 16th in the soon-to-be utterly defunct AP poll.

However, the 8-2 Badgers are ranked fourth in the overall S&P rankings -- 13th on offense and seventh on defense. Those who admire the Badgers would probably begin an explanation of what makes WIsconsin great by extolling their power run game and the way it's produced NFL OL and RBs for years. This season, in fact, the offense has already produced two running backs who've exceeded 1,000 rushing yards in Melvin Gordon and James White.

When positive attention falls on the defense, it's going to go to Chris Borland, who personifies the Badger mascot as a short and ferocious linebacker with 80 tackles on the year already, including seven behind the line of scrimmage. However, as great a player as Borland is, his achievements are made possible largely due to the technique and play of his defensive line.

In the Badgers' 3-4 defense, the linemen are 2-gap defenders who fill and plug lanes based on how the offensive linemen block. Much like a zone-blocking offensive line that's looking to create easy choices and creases for the running backs, the Badger defensive line gives Borland and his fellow inside linebacker (either Conor O'Neil or Derek Landisch) clear assignments and relatively free pathways to the ballcarrier.

Against this zone read play by the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Badger linemen crash inside with the group aim of spilling the ball outside. To the play side of the run, the DE crashes inside into center, leaving the right guard to take on the weakside linebacker without the favorable angle he would have had if the end had attacked the B-gap.

Guards don't typically love to find targets in space without favorable angles, as the linebacker is generally much quicker on his feet. He reaches #30, Derek Landisch, fairly well, but the linebacker is in position to make a tackle in his gap for a minimal gain.

On the backside, Borland is almost entirely free and clean of blocks and can scrape to the QB or RB since the nose tackle and end to his side have made a messy pile at the line of scrimmage.

On this play, Carlos Hyde would ideally plow through the B-gap occupied by Landisch. Instead, he sees the white WIsconsin uniform converging in that lane and sees the red color of his offensive tackle on the outside and tries to bounce the run outside.

In Wisconsin's defense, the outside linebackers are run-force defenders in charge of keeping the ball inside of them. Their walk-on weakside backer, Ethan Armstrong, is in solid position but is unable to wrestle down the powerful Buckeye back. Hyde pulls free at just the right moment to avoid a finishing blow by Borland and the Badger secondary have to drag him down after a five-yard gain.

The intentions of the zone read were not to spill Hyde outside to beat a leveraged force player and break tackles en route to a solid gain. The design of the Badger front thwarted the intent, and only Hyde's quick feet and power allowed a positive Buckeye gain.

However, the design of the Badgers defense of the play allowed their secondary to be free from primary run force responsibilities and leveraged to prevent any big gains. As with the Notre Dame defense, it becomes difficult to work your way down the field and land big shots with the secondary sitting on top of everything.

If the Badgers were facing a team without a star runner like Carlos Hyde, this play would likely have been a tackle for loss. If they had better athletes at safety, they'd be nearly impossible to run on as backs that were spilled outside or broke through the run D would be more quickly corralled.

Meyer's 2013 Buckeyes have the highest-ranked rushing offense in the nation, due largely to the power and versatility of Hyde, the explosiveness of Braxton Miller, and their talented and veteran OL. Perhaps their favorite run concept for combining these features is the "power read" concept, which gets Hyde on the edge while threatening the defense with the possibility of Braxton Miller flying through the middle.

Wisconsin's system of handling these blocks yielded opportunities for their linebackers here as well:

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's system essentially comes down to 2-gapping on the "read side" of a run. The nose tackle is doubled and is basically fighting for his life and the chance to make the middle of the field a pile-up rather a crease. He's cleared out by the guard, but the linebacker, O'Neil, is left totally clean.

Miller is reading Borland, the linebacker aligned to the side of the formation with three receivers. If Borland aligns to pursue the sweep by Hyde then Miller should be able to follow the pulling guard up the middle. While O'Neil is currently free and clean, that pulling guard has a great pathway and angle to blast him out of the hole and create options for Miller.

But for Wisconsin, the "read-side" defensive end is a 2-gap defender who's reading and reacting simultaneously with Miller. He sheds the offensive tackle's block and comes inside to take on the pulling guard. He's personally rewarded by being pancaked, but O'Neil harvests the greater fruit of having a chance to make the tackle on Miller. You may also notice that Borland is quick to arrive and jump on the pile as well.

In the second half, Ohio State attempted to attack the Badgers more horizontally by incorporating the ubiquitous packaged concept of the inside-zone run with the bubble screen to the perimeter.

For the Badgers, weakside outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong is in conflict. He's attempting to force the runner inside, as he did in the Zone Read clip above, but he's also responsible for the screen to the number two receiver. His hesitation and the off coverage by the Badgers corner provides space for the Buckeye receiver to pick up an easy five yards.

Of course, Wisconsin adjusted and lined up Armstrong wider from the box, where his pursuit angles to the screen would be easier.

The great difficulty with spread-option attacks like the Buckeyes' is in how they are able to horizontally stress defenses that prefer to play 2-deep as Wisconsin does. However, the techniques and physicality of the Wisconsin front allow them to adjust to these stresses without throwing up their hands and dropping a safety down to get extra numbers.

Miller reads Armstrong and sees him wide so he pulls down the ball in order to attack the space between Armstrong and his own offensive tackle.

However, the defensive linemen are all 2-gapping and thwart the plan. The "read-side" DE in particular attacks the offensive tackle's inside shoulder and doesn't allow him to move the point of attack while also positioning himself to defend that interior B-gap from an inside run. Borland takes this opportunity to scrape outside free and clean.

Miller sees the widely positioned OLB, pulls down to run, and sees that Borland is already in that space. So he looks to find whichever gap Borland left abandoned to cut upfield through. The nose tackle manages to squeeze that gap while the end is also fighting back across his block to fill inside again.

Miller then tries to get outside but is impeded by his own man, Hyde, along with the third Badger DL, Pat Muldoon. This DE has also 2-gapped an offensive tackle and worked his way inside to now make the play.

While Borland is a fantastic player who flies around the field, his tackles on film are often made while surrounded by linemen who are attacking their blockers and preventing creases from forming inside. They set the point of attack, which allows Borland to operate in short areas and reach the ball.

Over the course of the game, the Buckeyes were effective running the ball with Miller's explosiveness and Hyde's power, but even on a fourth-and-1 they found the Badger DL obstinate and resistant to their normally overwhelming run game.

The Buckeyes attempt to run power again. The "read-side" DE plays it as he has on every other snap in the game, by attacking the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle and re-setting the line of scrimmage.

The pulling guard has to bounce his block outside around the DE and arrives to find the linebackers already in the backfield. He takes out one of them, the other is Mr. Borland. Turnover on downs.

The final bit of brilliance evident in Wisconsin's strategies and the play of the front is in the Badgers' third-down packages, when they want to bring pressure.

While they threaten a big blitz, Wisconsin only brings four rushers here. However, by design of the pre-snap alignment, they get Borland isolated on the edge against the right tackle. The relentless middle linebacker shows a nifty spin move to beat him inside and flushes out Miller, then recovers in order to chase him out of bounds.

The defensive linemen get up to their usual tricks of physically attacking linemen before disengaging the blocks to pursue.

On this similar blitz, the guard and center are unable to master the exchange of the stunting defensive end, and Muldoon gets a free run at Miller, who escapes and manages a big gain by virtue of his unique athleticism. Again, quick pressure from the Badgers while only bringing four:

Finally, a play in which the Badger pressure doesn't arrive as quickly, but the conservative nature of their blitz packages nearly provides an interception:

On the next snap, Miller beat the Badgers' deep coverage with a laser-beam touchdown pass that provided the Buckeyes with a safe margin to carry into the second half.

Against a less talented but still explosive spread offense from Indiana, the Badgers held their opponent to 3.7 yards per play while completely eliminating the Hoosier passing game.

With a cast of three-star defensive linemen, Wisconsin coaches Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda have built a Badger defense that is physical and difficult to run against inside but also protects the secondary and allows the defensive backs to play "bend don't break" coverages.

The linemen protect the linebackers, the linebackers protect the secondary, and the opponent finds itself with nearly nowhere to go. Borland gets a lot of the credit, and he's a phenomenal player, but let's pause and sing the praises of the Badger DL: Pat Muldoon, Beau Allen, Ethan Hemer, Tyler Dippel, Warren Herring, and Konrad Zagzebski. It is a unit that is both largely unheralded and one of the most dominant units in college football in 2013.