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Wisconsin’s matchup exploiting offense

The Badgers love to put opposing LBs and Ss in tough spots where they have to out-execute specialists at the point of attack. However their TE development may only be in the early stages of potential.

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

The 2018 season was the best yet for Paul Chryst’s offense in Wisconsin. The Badgers had accumulated enough brutes across their offensive front to play classic neanderball and pave a way for Jonathan Taylor to run for 2194 yards and 16 scores on 307 carries. The passing downs numbers slipped from 7th in 2017 to 50th as the Badgers struggled to deal with the loss of WR Quintez Cephus to suspension, TE Troy Fumagalli to the NFL, and QB Alex Hornibrook to injury.

Despite the struggles in the passing game, they finished 13th nationally in S&P+ simply because the hammering process of pounding defensive fronts with Jonathan Taylor was nearly everything that Wisconsin needed to score points.

The Badgers are losing three OL from the group that paved the way for Taylor, all of which may be drafted later this year. Tackle David Edwards (6-7, 300 pounds) and guards Beau Benzschawel (6-6, 308 pounds) and Michael Deiter (6-6, 316 pounds). However, they stand to plug in a fresh wave of massive midwesterners like Jason Erdmann (6-6, 325) and Cole Van Lanen (6-5, 315). What’s more, while the Wisconsin OL was as terrific as we’re accustomed to seeing, their offense really revolves around creating matchups with their TEs.

Attacking matchups in the run game

Here’s how the Badgers went after the Hurricane D on the first drive of the Pinstripe Bowl, which was a rematch of the 2018 Orange Bowl.

This is counter with no pullers. Instead of pulling the backside guard the Badgers have their ENTIRE OL block down like some kind of red tidal wave while a TE kicks out the edge player and then the FB leads through the hole for the RB. The Badgers are in 22 personnel here, two TEs, a FB, and then Taylor and a single wideout. This scheme basically a way to move the point of attack outside so it’s a contest between their ancillary blockers and the defenders on the edge who have to deal with them.

A few plays later they ran power with no pullers:

Same concept, there’s a kickout blocker and a lead blocker but the OL doesn’t pull anyone to serve in either role. Instead they all block down while the TEs execute the other blocks and do so on the edge where the D has to address them with smaller defenders.

The problem the opponent has here is that defenses generally don’t love relying heavily on “packages.” They want to play their best 11 players as often as possible and defend everything with their best. But Wisconsin’s design here forces linebackers and safeties who need to be good at playing coverage and handling space to win physical battles in the box against players that specialize as blockers like FB Alec Ingold or TE Zander Neuville.

That often went poorly, because a LB can’t hone his run reading skills and block beating techniques as well as the Badger TEs and FBs can fine tune their blocking techniques.

Attacking matchups in the passing game

Eventually the Hurricanes managed to generate a tackle for loss on that first drive, the bane of the running team. But Wisconsin has another similar trick for handling passing downs:

This is their 11 personnel package they use on passing downs. They sub out battering ram Jonathan Taylor for versatile and route-savvy Garrett Groshek and play with three wide receivers flanking H-back/flex TE Jake Ferguson.

Groshek was the team’s fourth leading receiver (24 catches for 163 yards and a score) despite serving as sub-package player and Ferguson was the team’s second leading receiver (36 catches, 456 yards, and four TDs). They tended to move Ferguson around quite a bit, regularly playing trips formations with Ferguson as the innermost slot. At 6-5, 240 pounds with real skill as a route runner he presents major matchup problems for opponents and typically needed to be doubled.

On the concept above, the Badgers leak out Ferguson and Groshek on quick routes that the Hurricanes aggressively match, opening up the windows to throw the ball down the field. Back-up QB Jack Coan hits sophomore wideout Kendric Pryor on a dig route for the score.

The Badger’s pro-spread third down package makes life pretty easy on their already extraordinarily well supported QBs.

Opponents’ middle linebackers can’t cover Ferguson 1-on-1 in the seam, he HAS to be doubled with a safety. On this play the safety stays over the slot and Hornibrook just throws it up for his big man.

So then every snap in this package the QB is just checking to see how the defense is playing Ferguson and then either throwing him the ball or going elsewhere when the double comes.

Wisconsin’s play to their strengths

The essence of strategy is trying to force the contest to be played on favorable terms that play to your strengths and/or your opponent’s weaknesses. Wisconsin’s strength is that their home state and recruiting turf produces an inordinate amount of big, well-rounded, and not particularly fast athletes in the 6-2/6-5 and 220-260 pound range. They always have an abundance of good LBs, FBs, and TEs.

Their current offensive and defensive systems are oriented around making opponents beat them by besting their blockers in the run game, handling Ferguson in the seams, and blocking all of their linebackers on defense.

If they eventually determine that they can’t keep up with other teams running the football with guys like Jonathan Taylor, as Stanford determined this past year with Bryce Love, they could simply move to expand their pro-spread package into a base offense. In 2019 they finally secured the commitment of a blue chip QB in Graham Mertz with the allure of playing behind a perpetually NFL-laden OL with a flex TE clearing up the picture in the passing game. If Mertz proves to be a great player they may choose to get out ahead of the rest of the B1G regardless of the state of their run game and start attacking opponents regularly with the pro-spread.

The Badgers could also become a destination for talented WRs, either via recruiting or in the transfer portal. They’ve always managed to sell talented RBs on coming up to the frozen north in order to play behind a phenomenal OL and blockers. It could become an easy sell to convince WRs that the 1-on-1 matchups they’ll draw as a result of the attention Ferguson commands could do wonders for their numbers and NFL prospects.

The hardest pieces to find and build in order to field a top line pro-spread offense are players like the left tackle and the flex TE. The 6-5, 310 pound athlete and the 6-5, 250 pound skill player make all the difference and Wisconsin is consistently fielding topflight talent at both positions. Watch for their ability to exploit matchups with their personnel to pick up in the coming years as they orient more towards the passing game, if Barry Alvarez will allow it.