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Examining Wisconsin’s gameplan against Nebraska
Did you read the first piece I wrote on Wisconsin’s defense? Thanks. If you’ve made it this far, take heart in the fact that I found Wisconsin’s offense a bit more interesting. Seeing as they hung 42 points on Nebraska in the first half and 70 overall (granted, Wisconsin’s then-coach Bret Bielema is famous for running up the score) – and on defensive guru Bo Pelini to boot – there must be something good they’re doing up in Madison.
Again, the usual caveats about small sample size apply.
When Wisconsin has the ball
What does Wisconsin do on offense?
Wisconsin is, like Stanford, a smashmouth power running team. Its coaching staff is expert at turning high school seniors into gigantic offensive linemen, and when you have linemen like that, running between the tackles is just so much easier. For the last couple decades, in fact, Wisconsin has specialized in pounding the ball inside again and again and again until the defense is pretty much roadkill. Nevertheless, with a virtuoso performance against Nebraska, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada showed that a little conceptual diversity can add a lot to a team’s effectiveness.
The current trend in offensive football strategy is to use a lot of formations to confuse the defense. Stanford, with its gigantic playbook and versatility, is an example, but Wisconsin isn’t above complexity as well. Still, Wisconsin typically uses power formations.
This is the first play of the game, and while Wisconsin is not in a full power set, it definitely screams run. We’ll get to full power soon enough.
Wisconsin is in an unbalanced set, with two tight ends to the right. Nebraska responds by bringing down a linebacker to the line of scrimmage and rolling down the strong safety to act as another linebacker. With this many blockers on the right side, you’d think that Wisconsin would just run right anyway…no.
First off, notice how tightly bunched the defensive linemen are along the line of scrimmage. In order to present a more solid front up the middle, they’re already giving up the outside to Wisconsin’s offensive line. (Same goes for the linebackers.) This makes it very easy for Wisconsin’s OL to block them outside-in and seal them from the rest of the field, setting up the outside runs. Nebraska’s defensive ends weren’t in position to make plays on the outside all night.
To grossly oversimplify, defensive players generally read the run by looking at what the offensive linemen do. Wisconsin’s offensive linemen block to the right in unison (the outside zone play), but Wisconsin runs a counter: the outside tight end pulls away from the formation in slice motion and goes left to lead block for running back Montee Ball. Ball does a great job of initially selling the outside zone and then cutting left. The wide receiver blocks to seal Nebraska’s linebackers, who have all overcommitted to the outside zone and are already in poor position, away from the outside…
…and Ball gets a one-on-one with the safety. The safety makes a good tackle and Ball gains seven yards – which is still a quality gain – but as the rest of the game showed, a lot of one-on-ones with the safety go for touchdowns…
…for example, three plays later. After the first play, Canada calls another inside run to soften up the linebackers (like Pavlov’s dog and conditioning, if you abuse the counter too much, the defense eventually catches on), before going for the home run.
Ball and the offensive line fake the outside zone to the right again, and the linebackers bite again. Melvin Gordon runs a right-to-left jet sweep (in yellow), gets a one-on-one, sidesteps the safety, and boom, 56 yards, touchdown.
Nebraska’s defense simply could not be helped; the linebackers were messing up throughout the game. The fear of getting railroaded by Wisconsin’s offensive line was just too much. I mean, I like scoring as much as the next guy, but this was just painful to watch.
Wisconsin comes out in a max-power set – certainly something to watch for in the Rose Bowl – taking out their quarterback to add an extra blocker. Running back James White (Wisconsin has a lot of running backs) receives a direct snap and Wisconsin runs a fullback isolation, with the fullback lead blocking for the running back. Nebraska swarms to the point of attack so quickly that White changes his mind, cuts outside and runs for another touchdown. It’s possible that the outside run was the original plan, in which case count me impressed at how well White sold the isolation.
Stanford runs max power rather frequently in order to get the defense to bunch up inside, and like Wisconsin, they love to get the ball outside for big plays – although mostly with passes, not runs.
That isn’t to say that Wisconsin can’t pass out of max power.
After the direct snap to White, Wisconsin fakes another outside zone run, with the fullback lead blocking for White (defenses are trained to lock onto cues like these)…except that the tight end sneaks past the attacking linebackers. He catches the easy TD pass; there’s not a single defender within five yards of him.
It’s a good day when you can obliterate the #12 team in the country with just three or four offensive concepts. Sure, Stanford’s ranked #6, and Wisconsin doesn’t even appear in the BCS standings (they’re ranked #23 in the Coaches’ Poll, though), but the Cardinal will have to watch out all the same.
So what can Stanford do about it?
The main takeaway from the Big Ten Championship Game is that schematically, Wisconsin didn’t do anything tremendously innovative on offense. That isn’t to say that they’re not capable of innovation – they just didn’t need it, not against a team that played as hyperaggressively as Nebraska. As such, the first thing Stanford should do is work on being more disciplined – staying in position, seeing the ball, and only then keying in on the ballcarrier and attacking – and proper tackling.
Wisconsin used a lot of misdirection to throw Nebraska off balance, but the flip side of misdirection is that every guy used on a fake is a guy that you can’t really use to block. (Well, generally.) If Stanford’s players can stay in position and hold their ground, they should be able to numerically overpower Wisconsin’s rushing attack. More importantly, they should be able to limit Wisconsin’s big plays.
Here’s one of many examples where the Badgers’ misdirection worked wonderfully. Wisconsin didn’t really need to open up the playbook, having destroyed Nebraska with just a few concepts, so there’s very little to break down. (And why would you bother fully opening up the playbook anyway when you’re averaging 11 yards per rush?) Just to reinforce the point, though, here’s one last play, showing how Nebraska even managed to bite hard on what few pass plays the Badgers used. (They threw the ball ten times in the first half, three of which were trick plays of some sort.)
Wisconsin sends all three receivers on the left up the middle, and every single one of Wisconsin’s defenders scrambles to cover them. James White sneaks out and catches a quick swing pass, with nobody in front of him. It was a simple play, executed brilliantly. White went for 22 yards, and – can you believe it? – that wasn’t even one of Wisconsin’s top ten plays of the night.
Of course, the flipside is that if White had been reasonably covered, him being the only major passing option on the field – it didn’t look like the three routes up the middle were headed anywhere in particular – Phillips would likely have been forced to throw the ball away for no gain. Even if White had caught the ball, Wisconsin shouldn’t have gotten a first down.
During the Pac-12 championship game, UCLA, whose power running game likewise coaxed Stanford into cheating towards the middle, had a lot of success on outside passes – swings, screens, and so forth. Just something to keep in mind.
Of course, to a great degree, winning the game is not so much a matter of scheme as it is an extended series of physical battles all across the field. Holding one’s ground is easier said than done, and there were numerous instances late in the game where Nebraska, fearing Wisconsin’s outside runs, actually did position their ends shading to the outside, but Wisconsin’s linemen managed to quickly step around them and seal them to the inside anyway. Granted, that showed remarkably poor effort from Nebraska more than anything else – the game was already in hand, mostly – but it also displayed some fantastic agility from Wisconsin’s offensive tackles.
Without the big play, Wisconsin will have to string together long drives in order to score. Legendary Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer crunched the numbers and found that an offense’s chances of scoring on any given drive are:
Starting field position
-20 1/30 chance of scoring
While Wisconsin’s consistent power running style of play is especially suited to methodical, long drives, Beamer’s chart shows how it is still really difficult to get 4 yards again and again and again all the way for 80+ yards. (In my view, these numbers seem to lowball the offense’s chances, but the concept still holds – field position is often the difference between winning and losing.) Eventually, one of their plays should go for a small gain or even negative yardage, or somebody will commit a holding penalty or the like, and then the Badgers will be forced to throw the ball.
By my count, the Badgers only had seven true passing plays and a couple scrambles in the first half – and they didn’t pass once in the second half – so their aerial attack is a bit of a wild card. In only his fourth career start, quarterback Curt Phillips looked good in limited quantities, but – and this is not a knock on him at all – he wasn’t called upon to make very many tough throws; his receivers were generally wide open due to Nebraska miscues. (With Phillips’ predecessor Joel Stave returning from injury, Wisconsin has not decided whether Phillips will start.) In what few pass plays that Wisconsin called, the offensive line generally kept Phillips’ jersey clean, although he seemed a little too eager to run at times and would scramble early when waiting a couple more seconds could have netted a completion for a solid gain.
Offensive football strategy is a bit like the Hydra of ancient myth – always regrowing, always changing – but any defense has these two factors on their side: there’s only so much space on the field to defend, and there’s only so much that an offensive player can be expected to do. On both sides of the ball, somewhere, sometime, something’s gotta give – and whoever gives least will probably win the day. After four consecutive games against ranked teams and in general a season of countless nailbiters, Stanford should know this better than anybody else.
Winston Shi is still 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.