A Viewer’s Guide to the Rose Bowl (part 1)

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Examining Wisconsin’s gameplan against Nebraska

By now, unless you live under a rock, you know that Stanford football will face Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Nobody really expected a five-loss Wisconsin team to beat then-#12 Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game, but then the Badgers destroyed the Cornhuskers 70-31 to win their third straight conference championship. Stanford and Nebraska are different teams with different personnel and playing styles, but at this point in the season, even with a different coach, it’s a bit late for teams to drastically change how they play football.

I’m pretty sure that knowing what’s happening on the field doesn’t really detract from how much of a fan you are, and at the very least football strategy is excellent cocktail-party conversation, so even if dog blitzes and Cover-2 shells are the last thing on your mind right now, consider this food for thought.

The usual caveats about small sample size apply.

 

When Stanford has the ball

What does Wisconsin do on defense?

Wisconsin gave up 31 points to Nebraska, but the stats are misleading: they only surrendered ten points in the first half, which is quite good, especially against an offense like Nebraska’s (29thin the country, 35 points per game). Their defensive scheme is about as simple as you’ll get in Division 1 football, but that’s not to say that it’s useless, as Nebraska would attest:

This is a basic overview; exact alignments will vary.

Wisconsin primarily bases out of a 4-3 defensive front. Sometimes they will bring out one or two defensive linemen and switch in a smaller, faster player, but that doesn’t change the actual alignment much; about 90% of the time, regardless of whether the offense shows a run or pass, Wisconsin will rush the four players that they place on the line. The Badgers’ front seven is good but not overpowering. Their emphasis is on fundamentals and they don’t get fancy. Specifically, the players stay put and clog the running lanes between the offensive linemen (“gaps”) that are directly in front of them, and there’s almost no stunting: defensive players don’t exchange gap assignments during the play, a staple of Stanford’s defense.

The Badgers play a Cover 2 (2 safeties: F/S and $), but with the recent popularity of dual-threat quarterbacks that can run as well as pass, you can’t really get away with playing two deep safeties as a base defense anymore. Wisconsin is very aggressive against the run – you pretty much have to be in the run-heavy Big Ten conference. If the offense attempts to run the ball, Wisconsin will typically roll down to Cover 1, bringing a safety closer to the line of scrimmage to present an eight-man box. Given Stanford’s power run tendencies, they will probably do this most of the time.

When the offense tries to pass, Wisconsin plays a conservative zone coverage:

Wisconsin will almost never blitz more than four players at the quarterback, and they will almost never blitz fewer than that. A four-man rush leaves seven defenders in coverage, and this is pretty much the Badgers’ favorite zone coverage (75-85% of plays). The deep safeties split the field into halves. The half with more eligible receivers (in this case, the right) will have three zone defenders underneath. The half with fewer will have two. If the offense presents a very unbalanced set, for example four wide receivers on one side of the field (quads), they’ll just shift an underneath defender to the quads side. Wisconsin shows a 3-deep 3-intermediate zone sometimes, especially on a safety blitz, but it’s not particularly common. Corner blitzes are pretty much unheard of.

Wisconsin played basically zero man coverage against Nebraska, even though their wide receivers weren’t gamebreakers, so with such a limited set of coverages, Stanford can pretty much expect what I’ve just described at the Rose Bowl. The way they play their zone coverage is especially soft as well, and against Nebraska they gave up a lot of quick hooks and comebacks, which Stanford’s offense uses often and to great effect.

 

Seriously, just that?

In the NFL, you’ll see defenders milling around before the snap, trying to disguise what coverage they’ll utilize. Wisconsin’s defensive players generally don’t hide their alignment: with Wisconsin, what you see is what you get. They’re just betting that they can execute better than you do. One interesting exception to this rule, however, is the Badgers’ pre-snap movement on obvious passing downs (2nd and 15+, 3rd and 7+, or a two-minute drill) against Nebraska:

The defensive ends stay put in order to set the edges of the formation, but between them the linebackers, circled in yellow (Wisconsin takes out its defensive tackles in these situations) are given mostly free rein to mess around before the snap. After the snap, however, two of the linebackers fly towards the quarterback, and the others drop back into their zone coverage. The idea is that one of the four could rush, or all four, or something in between, and Nebraska can’t tell which one(s), either. (There was also one down where all four LBs rushed and the DEs dropped.) This is an effective way of disguising where their pass rush is coming from, and Nebraska’s offensive line suffered many miscommunications that contributed to a really bad day for quarterback Taylor Martinez (three sacks in the first half alone, of which one at most was his fault).

With this in mind, miscommunications aside, Wisconsin did not actually generate that much of a pass rush against Nebraska’s OL. When the OL knew its assignments, Martinez generally had all day to throw.

This is not a great defense against the run, given the lack of size up front – with only two defenders on the line of scrimmage, the offensive linemen will easily be able to get set and advance upfield – but it’s not like most teams are going to run on 3rd and 20.

 

So what can Stanford do about it?

No defense is completely impregnable, unless you’re playing Madden on farcically low difficulty. The first thing on Stanford’s to-do list would be to establish the run. Nebraska got pretty much zero production from its running game until after the game was well in hand and both teams were in “like, whatever” mode. Well over half of Nebraska’s rushing yards at the half came on one electrifying 76-yard scramble by Taylor Martinez, but as for called runs, Nebraska was toast. Wisconsin’s defensive line controlled Nebraska’s offensive line all night. They were very disciplined in how they filled their gaps, and more often than not Nebraska’s running backs had nowhere to go.

Of course, two minutes had barely passed before the Badgers were up by two touchdowns, and Nebraska was forced to throw the ball a lot in order to catch up. Wisconsin was hyperaggressive against the run and generally had the numbers advantage at the point of attack. Nebraska had one nice run where they were thinking outside the box (quite literally in this case; it was a sweep to the outside, where Wisconsin’s defenders were less concentrated), but they simply didn’t run the ball enough to figure out where were the holes in Wisconsin’s defense.

Given Stanford’s playcalling trends, the Cardinal will commit more to running the ball than the Cornhuskers, and they will do so in more varied ways: the traditional staples of power, trap, and the zone runs, but also outside runs like jet sweeps, toss sweeps, and the speed option to keep the defense honest and constantly off balance. Wisconsin trains its linebackers and safeties to play very quickly, and if the Badger linebackers are flowing too fast to the point of attack (which happened occasionally against Nebraska), that will open up cutback lanes and counter plays for big gains as well.

Of course, the biggest counter to the run is the pass. Stanford knows how to do that. Given Wisconsin’s performance against the pass, Nebraska actually should have dropped 30 points in the first half against Wisconsin, but some very poor execution sealed the Huskers’ fate. Here’s a prime example:

Nebraska is backed up at their own 10. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck calls an anchor concept (one route behind the safety, circled in red, and one route in front of him) on the left side as the main read, as well as what appears to be a curl-flat on the right (the camera didn’t show the whole play).

Nebraska’s play-action has star running back Rex Burkhead fake a run to the outside. All three Wisconsin linebackers bite and attack the rush – one of whom was supposed to cover the TE, Kyler Reed. Reed sneaks behind the linebackers and gets wide open:

Like, that is wide open.

Do you hear that? Yes. That is Zach Ertz or Levine Toilolo rumbling up the middle for fifteen yards. Again and again and again. Believe me, I’ll take it.

Before you accuse me of cherry-picking, Nebraska faked (mostly outside) runs nine times, generally in the first quarter, and Wisconsin bit enough for it to be considered a definite success on seven out of these nine plays.

Let me also show you another massive breakdown – on the same play, to boot. I’ll give you the same picture, but with different MS Paint graphics:

Under most Cover 2 coverage rules, the cornerback (pink arrow) should have kept with the outside receiver opposite him as he went vertical. However, seeing another receiver stick around in the flat, he stays underneath to cover that receiver instead; I’m guessing he was instructed to do that. The safety behind him (red arrow) should have assumed responsibility for the curl, but he’s too busy looking at the TE because the linebackers aren’t covering him. In other words, because of Wisconsin’s busted coverage – partly because of the success of the play-action – Nebraska has a guy open for an easy six points, so open that he’s obscured by the score box (yellow arrow+circle).

The TE up the middle was Taylor Martinez’ first read, so I don’t blame him for throwing to the TE, but if Martinez had pump faked to the TE and then thrown the curl, Nebraska would have tied the score at 14-all, and we might have seen an entirely new ballgame.

I counted four (!) instances in the first half alone where a Nebraska receiver was open for an easy touchdown due to defensive breakdowns. If Wisconsin doesn’t fix this over bowl season, Stanford should have no problem putting up points on the Badgers.

As it was, Nebraska, falling further and further behind, began to abandon the play-action virtually entirely, and their passing game mostly collapsed after that. When there was no run threat (and Wisconsin used the Amoeba), Nebraska gained a TD scramble, but also two sacks, two incompletes, a completion well short of the first down marker, and a couple first downs when the game was already well in hand (in the first half!).

There’s obviously a lot more to football schematics than this, and Wisconsin’s coaching staff could certainly go on for hours and hours about the finer points of their strategy, but this should be enough for you to know whom to make fun of when somebody screws up.

Next up: When Wisconsin has the ball

Link to part II here

 

Winston Shi is in dire need of a more interesting byline. While he waits for a byline, he bides his time by “writing” about football strategy at the Stanford Daily. You can direct questions, comments, and complaints to him at wshi94@stanford.edu.

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