Jim Harbaugh's offense is rare in this age of spread. He loves to use extra tight ends, fullbacks, and offensive linemen dressed as tight ends to extend the line of scrimmage, creating more gaps than the defense has competent run defenders to cover. Harbaugh also probably finds the heaviness of Paul Chryst's offense excessive.
Four years into Chryst's return to Madison and the meatball transformation is complete. Its engine, as per usual, is an offensive line that averages over 320 pounds, benches more than their pickup trucks, and goes eight deep with all-conference candidates before roll call gets to the fifth letter of the alphabet. They're grabby, mean, way more intelligent than all the memes about them, and mostly impenetrable in pass protection.
Behind them is man for this time and place. A man who believes he can shoot a football into a pinhole. A man turned on by the undulations of a rill.
Behind that man, that rarest of North American endangered species: A fullback.
Behind him, a patient discerning connoisseur of bespoke gaps.
The film: Sure we'd all like to have seen how BYU pulled it off, but are we BYU or are we Kinnick at Night? Iowa could have won this too if they hadn't fumbled away two punts.
Personnel: My diagram:
Wisconsin returned everybody but the tight end and fullback from last year. The latter had a proper heir apparent in FB Alex Ingold. The former however has been replacement by committee, which committee includes blocky-blocky-catchy TE Kyle Pennison, and catchy-flexy freshman TE Jake Ferguson (last year's quasi-second starter Zander Nueville is out for the season), and several backup offensive linemen in high numbers.
They're also facing Michigan again without their burly star WR Quintez Cephus, who's embroiled in a sexual assault accusation he's contesting as if he's either extremely innocent or extremely not. Flanker/Jet motion guy A.J. Taylor has maintained his highly efficient 12 yards per target from last year. Sophomore split end Danny Davis III is at 8 YPT and a 73% catch rate but strangely hasn't been used as much as the far less efficient slot Kendric Pryor. The real third down threat is Ferguson, Barry Alvarez's grandson, who's got 10 YPT and the second-most targets to Taylor. They also like to throw to slippery third down back Garrett Groshek, a quasi-slot receiver who seems to be reserved for shotgun snaps. When Taylor needs a breather they have RB Taiwan Deal back from the injury that knocked him out for 2017. Deal is a pure mooseback.
If it's not a passing down however, you're unlikely to see more than AJ Taylor from the last paragraph. The great RB Jonathan Taylor has started to get some use as a receiver this season, Ingold can catch more than fullbackian passes in the flat. They rarely throw at Pennison, and three different backup OL charted in this game in addition to the starting five. Play-action passes are sprinkled in with equal parts cunning and reticence, and are mostly America's Favorite Rollout to make sure your OLBs and safeties don't come down to interrupt Wisconsin's 9-minute turns.
The line is the vintage Wisconsin line. RT (Hornibrooks's blind side) David Edwards is a 1st rounder on most boards. He's a wall in pass protection, and a bulldozer on the run. RG Beau Benzschawel is a peak Wisconsin guard, a little too stiff to get NFL types excited but massive, leaning, smart, and quick enough to be a massive pain and their best run blocker. C Tyler Biadasz is a thick run-blocker with savvy beyond his years but arms that can get him in trouble versus a serious pass rusher. LG Michael Dieter has finally found his home inside after playing C and LT over a long starting career. And LT Jon Dietzen is a punishing run blocker who splits time with promising sophomre LT Cole Van Lanen, who's as grabby as any Badger OT I've seen. Not that it matters against Michigan but they all have their hands outside their defenders' arms pretty much every play. The Packers do this too. Other states should legalize it since it seems to be working.
[after THE JUMP: Randy Rivers and the Tight, Tight Windows]
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? This question does not apply, since "Pro-Style" today means a passing spread most similar to Northwestern's offense. Wisconsin is what a normal, non-option offense looked like in the 1980s except with 1,000 more pounds on the field.
Their version of the Flexbone is quite different from the Maryland version:
That's two receivers on the line of scrimmage, an offensive linemen wearing #96, and an H-back they've thrown at just twice this year as the flex guys. No, they didn't jet motion out of this except the one time.
Differentiating between the above and a formation I charted as "Ace Heavy" is splitting hairs, but they did this a lot, with three tight ends (one of them often an extra OL) extending the offensive front:
Sometimes they're literally 7 linemen.
This was the end-around (to a receiver off to the right) by the way.
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Another bad question, because this is really asking if they run outside zone or power as their base running play in addition to inside zone, and if that's the case they're Basketball on Grass, but, like, we're talking basketball with five Robert Traylors.
Tractor Tractor Tractor Tractor Tractor MUSHROOM MUSHROOM
The running game's breakdown was 22 variants of inside zone, 7 power plays (mostly counter trey), 5 outside zones, 4 fullback things, 2 draws, and 2 end-arounds.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Grinding is too slow for a team that's 116th out of 130 teams in Bill C's adjusted pace, where anyone past them believes in the Church of Time of Possession and isn't getting as many first downs. The announcers brought out the word "Slobberknocker" to describe this game.
Ten years ago it was en vogue for us internet smartypants to make fun of time of possession. Today, when math is an appreciated academic discipline at most accredited universities, scientists can more readily admit the psychological advantage to be gained from holding onto the ball for 30 minutes of real time. Wisconsin had drives in this game of 8, 11, 7, 6, 9, and 10 plays, and they don't run that many different plays. By the time you're at your 30 you can't remember a time when you weren't stopping outside zone, or counter trey, or inside zone with a TE insert, or inside zone with a jet fake. Is the 340-pound man wearing #89 the same as the guy wearing #95 a minute ago? Was having the ball just a dream? Wasn't there a DT next to you at some point? Is Jonathan Taylor ever going to cut or are we just going to stay in this shield wall all day?
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): People said I was unkind when I gave Hornibrook a 2 last year. Then he was run down by Bryan Mone. 2.
Zook Factor: Dude:
I get that these teams were trading 11-play Ishtar drives with 1950s formations but let's go over the five punting decisions that Wisconsin made that weren't a) Obvious punting situations, and b) Fumbled right back to them by Iowa (it happened twice!)
- 4th & 2 at IOWA 46: Bounced out of bounds at the Iowa 23 (23 yards)
- 4th & 3 at IOWA 44: Fair caught at the 12 (32 yards)
- 4th & 3 at IOWA 49: Downed at the 15 (34 yards)
- 4th & 4 at IOWA 44: Fair caught at the 15 (29 yards)
- 4th & 7 at WIS 48: Fair caught at the 3 (45 yards because Iowa is dumb)
The second 4th and 3 is the one capped above, down 3 in the 4th quarter, when Wisconsin hadn't gotten less than 5 yards on a run play in forever. Indeed Iowa was stopped, punted the Badgers back 50 yards, Wisconsin came back 4th and 4 on the 44, and punted again. Chryst should keep punting because it's working for him. He ignored the Iowa fans cheering when he sent out the punt team above and he won the game so he must be correct.
Dangerman: If I said I'm not afraid of RB Jonathan Taylor he would rip off 400 yards against Michigan so I won't be saying that and I won't be removing the shield that he gets for being an All-American candidate and competition for Barkley for all-B1G last year. But can I suggest he's not the GREATEST running back ever? Like last year and in this year's HTTV I compared him to every Wisconsin running back since 1990. He does possess many of their qualities. But he's LeVeon Bell, not Saquon Barkley.
Except Taylor is more LeVeon Bell than Bell ever was. Most of the time, he is just super super patient. He reads his blocking very well, and against Iowa's stout front that meant downshifting and staying put for a second or more while the Five Tractors got enough push to provide a crease.
Once he's got some momentum, he's going to get at least four yards no matter who contacts him. The play is over, and then he gets two more yards.
His best attribute is the ability to downshift and upshift again faster than a defender can get set. This was an interesting "Wham" (fullback replaces a linemen) play with a couple of folds that worked because Iowa wasn't prepared for it, but JT turned it into a big gainer by first letting his hole develop a little more, then down-up shifting on an unblocked safety when he got to the 2nd level.
Safeties who fling themselves at his legs are not going to get him down. I caught one bad bounce that lost him a couple of yards when going forward would get 2 or 3.
The other real star of this offense is going to need a…
|Wisconsin vs Iowa||Good||Neutral||Bad||Ovr|
Ol' Randy Rivers was deadly in this one, with PFF rating this week's performance higher even that Trace McSorley's against Ohio State. This isn't unusual for Mr. Tight Windows, however neither was the competition.
Alex Hornibrook leads all Big Ten quarterbacks in overall season grade as he has been the example of quarterback play seemingly game in and game out. Despite the lone blemish on his record against BYU, Hornibrook has put together three game grades over 90.0 and even in the loss to the Cougars, was subjected to four dropped passes by his receivers, nearly half of his season total (9) to date.
He takes what the defense gives him and throws to the spot where only his receivers can bring in the ball repeatedly. In fact, 54.6% of his passes are targeted past the line to gain, the second-highest figure in the Big Ten and only 35.3% of his passing yards have come after the catch, which is the second-lowest percentage.
A caveat: As you can see from the chart, that vaunted pass rush only generated two events. Iowa's pass defense relies on its pass rush so the offensive line's excellent protection, helped by plenty of play-action, allowed Hornibrook to survey and pick his spots in Iowa's zone coverage. Those spots were plantations compared to what Hornibrook usually throws into. Iowa has Mario's Ojemudia's brother and like Mario the brother is a good tackler in space who's good enough in coverage to drop into a linebacker zone. The problem is they have Mario's brother playing cornerback.
CB at the bottom of the screen
Last year Hornibrook's nondiscerning eye generated a lot of interceptions, but he's cut way down on those so far. That might be an anomaly:
That tight end, Ferguson, doesn't drop many and probably only lost this one because that Iowa LB got half a fingernail on it. It also highlights Hornibrook's dead-on-balls accuracy.
He doesn't always have to be—Wisconsin runs so much, their offensive line is so experienced, and their skill position players are so extremely blocky that their play-action is maximally deceptive. Like I just told you this is play-action and for a hot second you're still going to think I posted the wrong link:
The part that scares me the most about Hornibrook is he makes use of the receiver's full route. You may have the right coverage called, but his receivers are trained to keep their eyes on Hornibrook more than where they're going, and that leads to a lot of backyard passes that nobody would ever draw on a whiteboard:
It was particularly effective against Iowa because their cover 2 cornerbacks are built to come in and out of contact with receivers, not stay with them. But it works as well on any cornerback playing man, because staying all over these kinds of throws means leaving yourself wide open to the kind of pass interference Jane Coaston wants to run as a base play.
I've been saying every week this season that Michigan's defense is a bad matchup for their various opponents: too athletic for Notre Dame's WRs to body, too fast and savvy for Maryland's and Nebraska's goofball tricks, too talented in the secondary for SMU's and WMU's fades, too good at pass rushing for Clayton Thorson to West Coast his way through his progressions.
"We're a bad matchup for them" was a good line but smart readers/listeners knew it was meaningless unless I gave a point of comparison. Wisconsin is that example of an opponent who's well suited to take advantage of the holes in Michigan's defense. Hornibrook is not the guy you want throwing to those six inches of slant space Michigan's base Cover 1 leaves open by alignment. Taylor is the wrong back to play against when your WLB is undersized and eager to take a shot at a gap. A fullback like Ingold and offensive linemen who raided the DL's dressing room are the wrong kind of skill position players for a linebacker corps recruited and trained to snuff out spread offenses. They're the wrong offensive line to come up against when your defensive tackle depth is down to a freshman and walk-ons.
Michigan last year was able to mostly hold up against their rushing attack with most of these same players. Unfortunately Brian only got as far as the offensive UFR before Henri the Otter of Ennui took over, so I don't have a detailed account of how that happened. My memory unfortunately is saying "Mo Hurst" and "Aubrey Solomon's coming out party" and "this was the game McCray was made for" before recalling some ref shenanigans that I'd managed to bury. I think there was a slot fade, and one long run for Taylor that took his YPC from 3 to 7. Quick rewatch of that and I think Mone was also excellent.
It's going to be a unique challenge. No frills. Not much frippery. They're just very big, they emphasize the bigness, and they play a soft schedule against a lot of teams that don't have the time or resources to train up a Tongan terror at nose or LBs who won't get caved by a bouncer in a Terrell Owens jersey.
Michigan's strength and conditioning program and few weeks of rest for the damaged DL will either be enough to stop them, or it won't. When a team can't keep up with the strength of Wisconsin, their defense will start flinging its smaller bodies at anything that moves, hoping to make up for an average size difference of 60 pounds with 60 minutes of sacrifice. That's when they go play-action, finding the cracks in your zones, waiting for that split second of weakness in your man coverage to hit that square inch you can't possibly defend. Their lefty quarterback is not afraid to find that inch, because nobody in college expects to have to defend it. He's not afraid of pressure, because it never comes. He's not afraid to admit his prurience for fast-moving bodies of water, because in Wisconsin it's finally '90s!
Like the running game, stopping their passing attack will come down to whether Michigan's athletes are that much better than those the Badgers have picked on thus far. Because Hornibrook doesn't think too long when he spots a window, the interceptions are there for the taking if you've got guts to bait him and the ability to get there and grab it:
Don Brown's squad has already passed a number of tough challenging academic challenges along the way. This week we'll see how they fare in Phys Ed.