The Wisconsin offense was clicking on all cylinders last weekend, compiling 515 total offensive yards and scoring 42 points, gaining momentum from the initial drive and never letting go.
The Badgers sustained a balanced gameplan for the first time this season, looking to pass on several first downs early, and even setting up out of the pistol to create play-action opportunities.
Why did the change occur in Week 6 and what finally clicked?
On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Bobby Engram spoke to reporters about the newer looks and different plays, which he said the team had been incorporating since the spring.
“We’ve been working on some [formations and motions] since the very beginning. The guys went out and they executed really well.”
However, Engram additionally involved that while they had been working on different ideas since the beginning, acquiring enough practice reps was significant, as the players needed to feel comfortable to execute properly.
“I think it’s reps. Those are things we’ve been repping since the spring. Lot of it carried over to fall camp. We always try to formation/motion shift. I think when guys feel comfortable with what they’ve done, they’re going to do it well.”
One of the major changes involved an increased utilization of play-action, which was a concept that the Badgers initially used, but went away from in Week 2, and hadn’t rebuilt that identity before their Week 6 win.
Engram acknowledged that he wanted to incorporate more play-action opportunities for the offense, which made sense given that it could open up the passing attack against defenses that were looking to sell out against the run, creating easier looks for Graham Mertz.
“I think we spoke a couple weeks ago of trying to do more [play-action], and to be honest with you guys, when we talked, it was something we felt we needed to do,” Engram said. “We tried to give the guys the best chance of success and keep the defense off balance.”
One incorporation of the play-action was coming out in the pistol formation for the first time all season at the beginning of the game, which had been a mainstay with the Baltimore Ravens offense over the past few seasons.
In 2019, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman illustrated the importance of the pistol formation and why it could open up the entire playbook for the offense.
“It allows you to run the ball either direction,” Roman said. “When you’re in the shotgun, it’s pretty easy … people can make some calls, some line stunts, etc. I like the shotgun, too, don’t get me wrong. But the pistol formation allows you to run your whole offense. They don’t know which way you’re going. That’s good for the offense.
When asked about his involvement of the pistol in last week’s game, Engram shared a similar sentiment, adding that it provides a different look for the defense, while keeping the playsheet open offensively.
“[The pistol] is a different look, No. 1, for the defense. It allows the [running] back to get downhill. You can still do the play-actions off of that, so just another way to throw a different look at the defense.”
However, the biggest change that Engram made to the offense on Sunday wasn’t to do with his gameplan or playcalling, but rather his decision to come down on the field, instead of coaching from the booth.
While Engram’s experience came with pros and cons, the change was impactful enough that the offensive coordinator intends to remain on the field for the remainder of the season as he calls plays.
“I think, No. 1, you feel the environment obviously. No. 2, you just got to communicate with the guys: is it 2, is it 3, is it 4 yards [to go], because it’s kind of hard to see when [you’re] across the field, but the guys in the booth did a great job [communicating]. And then just me being on top of my game and communicating with the coaches to make sure we get us to the right play,” Engram said. “There’s pros and cons, but I liked it, and that’s how we’ll move forward. [And also], really being able to communicate with Jim [Leonhard], talk to him about some situational moves that may have come up: third downs, fourth downs, timeouts, etc. [Moving to the field] was a good change.”
Perhaps Engram’s decision comes on the heels of Wisconsin’s firing of former head coach Paul Chryst, as the move left a lack of an offensive-coaching mind on the field.
Overall, while the offense did rebound against a subpar Northwestern defense, it’s understandable that there has been a slower start to the season in that regard, as Engram’s playbook and vision were incorporated just this off-season.
Additionally, it appears that Engram wants to place his players in the best position to succeed, meaning the playbook seems limited until the execution is there in practice.
So, the entirety of Engram’s vision may not be seen until 2023 when the players have an entire year to truly prepare and rep the different offensive ideas, but it’s promising that there has already been changed in the wake of Chryst’s firing.
While Engram has called the plays all year long, he finally has the reigns to the offense without Chryst’s input, and Wisconsin has already reaped the benefits, getting their season on track and heading into Michigan State with a .500 record.
Now, the question becomes execution and consistency, both on the coaching end and the players' end.
Can Engram continue to revitalize this offense with his creative mind and knowledge of the Ravens’ system, or will he revert to the simplistic playcalling that he showcased earlier this season when his back is on the line?
With his new style, involving more play-action and even the pistol formation, it remains to be seen how he’ll operate while under the pressure of a close game, as his scripted plays led Wisconsin to a healthy lead early in Week 6.
Additionally, can the players, ranging from the offensive linemen to the quarterback to the skill position players, execute the plays to perfection and build off their momentum from last weekend?
If the answers to both are yes, this Wisconsin offense has quietly become a dangerous force to reckon with if they can hit their ceiling.
That moment may not come until the 2023 season, but in a rebuilding year, if they can put the pieces together offensively, that momentum will be strong heading into Graham Mertz’s senior campaign with a younger roster that should remain fairly intact.
While questions arose around Engram’s playcalling over the first couple of weeks, leading to questions about his future now that Jim Leonhard became the interim head coach, his performance last week indicated that he’s the perfect fit for this offense if that potential is reached.
The Ravens system that he came from was the main reason that I believed this hire would be a smart hire in the offseason, given the semblances between the offensive personnel(multiple tight ends, strong rushing attack, play-action), but with a pro-style touch.
Even against an inferior opponent, Week 6 proved for the first time this season that Engram could be the answer that Chryst hadn’t been over the past two seasons, and Wisconsin will now need to build on their momentum and compile another strong offensive performance against a tougher defense in Michigan State.