Unselfish Wisconsin offensive line continues to prove itself

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Badgers' offensive line has erased any doubts fans had about the unit entering the season.

MADISON -- The questions about Wisconsin's offensive line were plentiful entering the season.

Do the Badgers have enough depth? Will the unit be adequate in pass protection? Are the days of dominant UW lines a thing of the past?

"I think that those guys take it a little personal," offensive line coach T.J. Woods said. "When you talk about mediocrity in that room, that's not something that they're accustomed to and it's not something they want to be a part of."

They've erased those doubts and more through nine games. The Badgers are among the 20 best teams in the country in sacks allowed, have anchored one of the nation's top running games and haven't missed a beat when replacing one of their starting five.

That outside noise during the preseason, though, isn't what has propelled the group to exceed expectations.

"The reason we came in with a chip on our shoulder was so we could prove ourselves to the guy we were playing next to." -Rob Havenstein

"The reason we came in with a chip on our shoulder was so we could prove ourselves to the guy we were playing next to," junior right tackle Rob Havenstein said. "I wanted to prove to Kyle [Costigan] I was a better player than I was last year. I want to prove to Ryan [Groy], one of our seniors, that I was a better player than last year. Dan [Voltz] the same way. Same thing with Dallas [Lewallen]."

The group, which had the opportunity to make or break Wisconsin's offense this season, has been better than a year ago. It's much of the reason the Badgers' 19th-ranked offense averages more than 280 rushing yards per game.

For Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen, there likely isn't a more important position on the field, especially in the Badgers' scheme.

Andersen said the majority of his team's running plays require every man up front to connect on his block in order for the play to have any success.

"A lot of the plays we run, there's six or seven blocks that have to take place," he said. "So, I think they're on a little higher stage on having to get their blocks because of the number of blocks that have to take place every snap for our scheme to be able to work, even a simple power play. It's a down scheme and a kick-out scheme, but it's not that easy. There's a lot that goes into that."

Even Andersen, though, worried about the depth of Wisconsin's offensive line coming into the season. An injury up front can already easily disrupt the continuity of any starting offensive line, and the Badgers lacked scholarship players at the position and many hadn't proven themselves in game action.

But second-teamers Dan Voltz and Zac Matthias have seen significant action after starters were injured without any noticeable drop-off in production.

"It's tough preparing guys that don't get all the reps during the week," Woods said. "It's tough keeping your sword sharp as far as your technique and all those things when you're not getting a lot of reps, but I think with Dan and Zac, it's been relatively easy because those guys handle their business the right way, and they perform on Saturdays."

Lewallen, who has missed games against Ohio State and BYU this season, attributes the interchangeability to the frequent position shifting during the offseason.

"We took a lot of snaps with multiple guys playing multiple positions throughout fall camp and spring ball just to try to get used to guys playing next to you," said Lewallen, whose lingering knee injury has made him questionable for Saturday's game against Indiana. "We haven't missed a beat in my opinion with guys going down."

Fall camp was where Voltz suffered an injury after the starting center job appeared to be his.

Suddenly a backup to Lewallen upon his return, the redshirt freshman handled the situation like a veteran.

"I think a lot of kids would have reacted a lot differently than Dan did," Woods said. "Dan was mature about how he handled it and came to work every day and tried to get better, and I think you're seeing the results from that."

Havenstein added, "He still acted from the mental aspect of the game like he was a starter, and I think for him to do that is absolutely huge, and that's a true testament to Dan."

Andersen believes that type of unselfishness has become one of the unit's most noticeable qualities, and it's a major reason why injuries haven't put a damper on what's been a largely productive offense.

"I guess the next man up, which this team has done so many times this year in a very positive way, would fit this (offensive line)," Andersen said. "They do it week in and week out. I think those kids and Coach Woods and (offensive coordinator Andy) Ludwig took a lot of pride in preparing, being smart.

"These kids have done a nice job of practicing the right way. They've worked like crazy. I'm proud of them."

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