In attending three straight Rose Bowls, Wisconsin has become synonymous with one thing – a power run game. New Wisconsin Head Coach Gary Andersen has shaken up some traditions, such as trading in Wisconsin’s bend but don’t break 4-3 defense for a blitzing 3-4 look. But what Andersen has not altered is the Wisconsin offense. The Badgers still look to line up with a deep tailback behind a big offensive line to run inside zone, outside zone and power.
The Badgers’ offense is not identical to previous Wisconsin teams, however. While the above run plays remain the foundation of Wisconsin’s attack, the Badgers do not have a John Clay or Montee Ball to run inside time and again. Instead, the Badgers seek to attack the edge with two swift tailbacks in Melvin Gordon and James White.
Gordon is the primary bell cow for the Badgers. Gordon’s style is in the mold of a Chris Johnson. Tall and angular, Gordon is a strider. But despite his build, he is a north-south runner, seeking to make one cut and get upfield. Gordon’s danger becomes apparent when he gets to the defense’s second level. He then looks to break contain and is a threat to create an explosive play at any time, particularly once he hits his stride.
To utilize Gordon, Wisconsin uses inside zone and power to set up outside zone. With outside zone, the offensive line blocks an area rather than a man. Each offensive lineman takes a lateral step play side, seeking to reach the next defensive lineman. The offensive linemen work in tandem. For instance, if the tackle is covered, meaning has a defensive lineman across from him, he will lateral step while using his backside arm to keep the defensive lineman in place until the guard reaches him. Once the guard has secured the block, the tackle will then release to block a linebacker.
The offensive line’s movement forces the defense to move laterally in an attempt to maintain their gaps, creating lanes for the tailback to cut-up behind a defense’s over pursuit. This plays to Gordon’s strengths. He is able to find an opening, plant his foot and run north-south.
In Wisconsin’s controversial loss earlier this season, Arizona State sought to contain Gordon by keeping him within the tackle box. The Sun Devils employed eight man fronts. They repeatedly brought corner and nickel blitzes, seeking to hem Gordon in before he was able to break contain.
Rather than respond to the Sun Devils’ aggressive looks by relying entirely on an inexperienced Joel Stave, the Badgers’ coaching staff sought alternative methods to get Gordon the football. They utilized spread formations to throw Gordon screens. They also used unbalanced lines with White in the backfield and Gordon at the weak side flanker. They would fake inside zone and give to Gordon on the jet sweep. This provided Gordon the opportunity he needed to get the edge.
In so doing Gordon demonstrated his versatility that will make him sought after at the next level.
Facing down this big play potential is Ryan Shazier and the Ohio State Buckeyes’ defense. Shazier is the only returning starter in the Buckeyes’ front seven. The Buckeye defense has yet to face a team that could or would seek to establish the run. That will change with Wisconsin.
Last season in Madison the Buckeye defense held Wisconsin to 14 points by nearly bending to the point of breaking. Wisconsin ate up rushing yardage in an attempt to control the game and keep the Ohio State offense off the field.
The Buckeyes now face the Badgers with a largely rebuilt front seven. But Ohio State’s 2012 defense did not have anyone playing the run at Shazier’s level. Shazier is a prototypical Will linebacker, able to run with any linebacker in America and track down plays from the backside. But in his first year as a starter last season, Shazier was at times more of an athlete than a technician. He had a tendency to overrun plays and miss tackles.
Shazier improved as 2012 progressed, however, and by season’s end was playing at an all-conference level. Like Gordon, Shazier’s value lies in his versatility. His athleticism makes him a three down linebacker. He is adept in pass coverage, serving as the Buckeyes’ only linebacker in its dime package. He also has a knack as a pass rusher, where he uses his first step to beat offensive tackles off the edge. Ohio State’s thin linebacker corps has limited Shazier’s pass rushing opportunities, but he has succeeded when given the opportunity.
Shazier’s biggest improvement, however, has come against playing the run. Shazier is far quicker this season at diagnosing a play. He takes the correct angles in scraping down the line of scrimmage and is able to use his quickness to beat blockers and make the plays in the hole.
Shazier and his teammates will face a challenge containing Gordon and White. Look for Ohio State defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers to rely upon their experienced defensive backfield, led by Shazier’s fellow potential first round teammate Bradley Roby. The Buckeyes will likely play a lot of single high safety coverage, be it cover 1 or cover 3, to bring strong safety CJ Barnett down as an additional defender in the box.
Andersen and his coaching staff will assuredly test the Buckeyes’ young front to see if Ohio State can stop the Badgers’ base run game. If the Buckeye defense is able to apply numbers to slow down Wisconsin’s inside, expect Andersen and his staff to attempt to get Gordon the ball in space. Whether Wisconsin is able to score enough points against Ohio State may depend upon whether the Badgers can free Gordon for explosive plays.