LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis calls it “window dressing.”
Wisconsin’s rushing attack — ranked fifth nationally and second among Power Five conference teams at 325.67 yards per game — certainly looks fancy before the snap. Tight ends move from one half of the formation to the other. Fullbacks slide to one side of the running back. A wide receiver or second running back sprints in motion.
What happens after that is about as subtle as a punch in the mouth.
The Big Ten’s best downhill running game for years — the Badgers have led the league in yards per game in four of the last seven seasons — Wisconsin uses its big, well-coached line and NFL-caliber backs to pound and overwhelm defenses. The system is consistently hard to stop — UW has fallen short of 100 rushing yards in just four games in five years — and spans several offensive coordinators and two coaching staffs.
That’s right: When Gary Andersen took over for Bret Bielema, he scrapped several elements of the Badgers’ old regime. But he didn’t scrap the structure and success of the running game. He had that offensive line. He had running back Melvin Gordon, who leads the nation in yards per game and many explosive run categories.
“Why mess with a good thing?” NU coach Bo Pelini said Monday. “And they haven’t. They’ve done a good job of sticking with what they’re doing.”
Pelini then added: “I actually spent a lot of time learning, trying to figure out why they were doing things and how they did it.”
He’s faced Wisconsin three times since joining the Big Ten. In 2011, the Badgers ran for 231 yards in a 48-17 win over the Huskers, who also had to worry about quarterback Russell Wilson. In a 2012 game at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska stuffed Wisconsin — which had just fired its new offensive line coach — for 56 yards in a 30-27 win. But the 2012 Big Ten championship game was Pelini’s Waterloo. Wisconsin romped for 539 rushing yards. NU’s defenders, Pelini said, were out of whack. Off-kilter. Focused on the wrong keys.
The Badgers’ confusing-yet- powerful style can do that.
“It’s something you have to be aware of every single time they line up,” Papuchis said.
“Everyone is going to have to read their keys,” Pelini said. “Be disciplined and play in their gaps. To play great defense, it has to be great team defense.”
Just what will Nebraska face? A blend of power and speed. The usual diet of between-the-tackle runs with the one weapon Wisconsin deploys better than any other program: the fly sweep.
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To the drawing board
Wisconsin, with its powerful offensive line and backfield tandem of Gordon and Clement, has plenty of ways to attack defenses on the ground.
Wisconsin can run its successful jet/fly sweep play in a variety of manners, but the most common version involves a barge of blockers — usually two linemen and a tight end who arc outward and fan toward defenders — and a skill player running as fast as he can around the unblocked play-side defensive end who eventually falls in behind his blockers. The ball carrier can be running back Melvin Gordon, his backup, Corey Clement, or any number of wide receivers.
The keys to stopping the play, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, are discipline and sound tackling.
“If you’re disciplined within your scheme — and everybody executes their role, all 11 guys — it shouldn’t be an issue,” Papuchis said.
Although the play is most identified with Gordon, the designed version of it can be run by wideouts, too. In Wisconsin’s 28-24 loss to LSU, receiver Reggie Love ripped off a 45-yard touchdown on the play.
Like most running teams, Wisconsin will sooner or later run a basic inside zone play. The Badgers will run it out of several formations, while Gordon and Clement — perhaps the better inside runner of the two — look for a hole to punch through.
The success of such a play tends to hinge on two things:
First, a running back’s vision and instincts to see and hit a hole just as it appears.
Second, the offensive line’s ability to “climb,” or reach the linebackers and safeties, so that once the back hits the hole, he doesn’t have guys diving at his legs or swooping in from the backside.
Gordon and Clement see holes well. And Wisconsin’s line knows how to climb.
“In a lot of ways, they appear so,” Papuchis said. “They’re really well coached, they stay square, they climb well to the second level. They’re as good as anyone we’ve faced.”
The best antidote to a good zone play is an even better defensive line. And Nebraska may have the Big Ten’s best with all-league candidates Maliek Collins and Randy Gregory anchoring the unit.
“We’re going to have to hold up inside,” Papuchis said. “That’s the key. If they can run in between the tackles against us, it could be a long day for us. We’re going to have to do a nice job inside at being physical. Our guys understand that.”
POWER O BOX
Gordon especially makes hay on one of Wisconsin’s power play staples, in which two linemen pull toward the side of the play and a tight end often assists by wrapping around to block backside pursuit. Gordon has the option of cutting up into an alley, if a hole is there, or bouncing his path all the way to the sideline.
When most backs break outside, they usually are forced out of bounds. But Gordon turns the corner like a race car. He often gets his biggest runs by simply veering around 1,000 pounds of Badger blockers and beating defenders to a spot. His backup, Clement, isn’t nearly as smooth, but he’s dangerous, like Ameer Abdullah is for Nebraska, when Wisconsin blockers give him a perimeter lane.
“There will be a couple gaps not secured, and he’ll bounce it and make a big play and get to rolling,” linebacker David Santos said of Gordon. “You have to be consistent with him, because he’s going to consistently be running as hard as he can.”
Said Papuchis: “He’s explosive, he runs hard and he’s a threat to take it the distance every time he’s going. I don’t know that I’d draw a direct comparison with anybody, but, certainly, he’s a great back.”
FLY SWEEP 2/ZONE PLAY
Another version of the sweep play goes without pulling blockers, instead incorporating a zone blocking scheme and a play-side wide receiver running a go route. Think of this as a different kind of “triple option.” Even if the option is predetermined, a defense has to be ready for three different plays because the offense will execute as if any of the three plays could happen. One is the fly sweep across the defense. Two is a classic power inside zone play. Three is a play-action fake to both the sweep and the dive with a long pass to the wideout either running a go or deep post route. The defense has to be wary of all three options.
This is the play on which Gordon scored Wisconsin’s first touchdown against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game, breaking the tackles of Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith on his way to the end zone. In the 2012 game at Memorial Stadium, UW wideout Jared Abbrederis caught a 54-yard pass on the same play.
“It creates one-on-one tackling situations,” Papuchis said. “Someone has to be responsible for the fly sweep, someone has to be responsible for covering the wideout who’s out there. Essentially, it leaves to where everyone has a gap, and if one guy gets out of his gap — or one guy sees too much — it can create issues.”
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