Wisconsin football is known for two things: good running backs, and mammoth offensive lines. However, in the 2015 season, the offensive line has played much smaller than their size would indicate. A mix of inexperience and lack of physical maturity is to blame, but the regular season ended on a high note for the Badgers.
Something that in my opinion gets taken for granted and overlooked, is that despite their massive size, these are 19 and 20-year old kids playing as redshirt freshmen. Having another year in the Badgers strength and conditioning program under strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej will benefit these kids greatly.
The major difference on Saturday in Wisconsin's' 31-21 win over Minnesota that's been missing throughout most of this season was the athleticism of the offensive line. This was the Badgers' seventh different offensive line combination this year. Usually the word athleticism isn't synonymous with offensive linemen; however, it has a lot to do with most successful line play.
To clarify here, Wisconsin's offensive line is composed a little differently than most modern units. What most other Power Five conference teams do, is they find some hyper athletic three hundred pound specimen, and they put him at tackle (google Indiana's Jason Spriggs). Then the interior players are considered inferior athletically and the same can be said for the NFL. However, Wisconsin doesn't quite follow that same formula. Due to the propensity to find large Scandinavian people in the state and surrounding areas, the Badgers often sport an obnoxiously big line, usually lacking in athleticism.
This is well and good, but what former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen found tough about this was, as his staff tried to implement a "spread zone read" element in the offense, that often puts linemen in space. This is not a good thing if you aren't overly athletic. This often put the players in a less than ideal situation to succeed. Hence, Wisconsin utilizes the strategy of condensing everything and simply physically over-matching you. Well, as I've mentioned already, the youth of the Badgers' line doesn't quite equate with physical dominance yet, so they resort to being "athletic". (As a former college offensive lineman myself, I use this term loosely.)
This next play is a good example of what I'm talking about with the athleticism:
On this play in the Badgers' second offensive drive, they are in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end). This is a new type of power play that I haven't seen the Badgers run before this past week. The Minnesota right end, or the one with the poorly drawn dotted line circle around him, won't be touched on this play. The Gophers are in a "pro" box (three linebackers in the box) on this play, and this type of front creates poor angles for the linemen. In order to combat this, Wisconsin will gain an advantage for not having to account for all of the defenders in the box. Redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Marz will rip inside of the end, and work up to the second level. Redshirt freshman left guard Micah Kapoi will double team the one technique defensive tackle with fellow redshirt freshman center Michael Deiter. The other two starting redshirt freshman on the line, right guard Beau Benzschawel will pull around to lead through the hole, and right tackle Jacob Maxwell will "fold block", or simply down block on the 4i technique defensive tackle as Benzschawel pulls around. Redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor will be responsible for Theiren Cockran, the Gophers' stud defensive end. This is arguably the most important block on the play, as he's responsible for sealing Cockran outside, making the alley for Benzschawel to pull up through.
Here we see what the play looks like as it starts to develop. Redshirt senior fullback Derek Watt leads up the hole for redshirt freshman running back Taiwan Deal. Traylor has sealed out the aforementioned Cockran. Redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson is working for inside position on defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun. At the top of the screen, we see redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jazz Peavy working his proverbial tail off to cut off the hang-down strong safety. These are accessory blocks on this play, but what struck me was the offensive line's play on this down.
Marz did just what he was supposed to do, and is now in the luxurious position as a lineman of actually not having to block anybody. He's simply there for backside cut-off. As shown by the yellow star, the defensive lineman Marz didn't block actually gets caught up in the traffic of the play, and ultimately is rendered useless. Kapoi was able to do a nice job of gaining depth on his reach block, which enabled Deiter to advance to the second level to pester Cody Poock, the Gophers' outstanding young linebacker. Maybe most impressive on this play though, was redshirt freshman Benzschawel. First, he pulls around Maxwell on the reach block, but it's done well enough where he actually has enough time to return to the fold block, and help prevent the defensive lineman from scraping over the top of the block. He then can head to the second level to block De'Vondre Campbell. Maxwell, with help from Benzschawel, takes care of the 4i technique.
Though subtle, the defensive tackle's positioning would have made it easier for him to get around the down block, so it was very aware of Benzschawel to help prevent that from happening before climbing to the linebacker. (A three technique defensive tackle would be lined up on the outside of the guard, where as a 4i technique is lined up on the inside of the tackle. Trust me, it makes a difference.)
Now, this may be what I'm most impressed by:
Remember when I was talking about Benzschawel helping Maxwell to prevent the defensive tackle from getting across Maxwell's face on the down block? This actually ended up slowing the block down enough for Watt to beat Benzschawel to the linebacker, and at first seemed as though Benzschawel would be a wasted blocker on the play. However, as Deal continued to fight for yardage, you not only see Deiter coming into the screen, but also Benzschawel fighting upfield to push Deal for an extra six yards on this play. Effort like this goes a long way to make up for physical shortcomings.
When mentioning that Wisconsin offensive lines are often composed a little differently than most units, the Badgers usually play with what come out to be the equivalent of five offensive guards. This is a great benefit in the running game, however it can create issues in pass blocking. Simply put, defensive ends are usually more athletic than guards. Despite the line's struggles in pass protection this season, their biggest frustration was being unable to run the ball like in years gone by. The offensive line seemed to take those frustrations out on Minnesota last Saturday to the tune of 199 yards on 35 carries in the first half -- 257 yards for the game.
By moving Benzschawel inside to guard due to redshirt junior Walker Williams' injury, the entire right side of the line became more athletic, and that allowed them to better secure blocks on the second level and ultimately allowed the running backs to run free.
At the end of the day, as much as losing Marz after the bowl game will hurt, the Badgers will move forward with four freshmen returning next season. Four kids who will have gained quite a bit of the priceless experience of playing through a tough Big Ten schedule, but also playing through quite a bit of adversity. Together, offensive line play is all about chemistry as a unit, and the longer the Badgers can keep this group together, it means only good things for the future of the offensive line, the running backs, and in turn, the offense as a whole.