Wisconsin lost its head coach, but not its identity. Ever since Barry Alvarez lifted the Badgers to national prominence, the Badgers have been known for power running offense and tough defense. At one point, recent Badger running backs held the record for most rushing yards in a career (Ron Dayne), most rushing touchdowns (Montee Ball), and most yards in a single game (Melvin Gordon). Gordon's record was short lived but is still damned impressive.
This year, Wisconsin is ranked 4th nationally is rushing offense and 118th in passing offense. Their ability to run the ball is especially impressive given that they are really, really bad at throwing it. Stack the box. Bring help from the secondary. Completely sell out. It doesn't matter. Wisconsin will get their yards on the ground. For the purposes of this film study, I'm sticking almost exclusively with the game where MelGor ran for 408 yards against Nebraska.
As most of you know, Bret Bielema came from Wisconsin. His Arkansas offenses look a lot like Wisconsin offenses so look here and here for more reading on this style of play. I expect Auburn's defense in this transitional game to go back to what it looked like against Arkansas. Basic man cover 1 (and occasionally cover 0) rotating a safety up to provide run support.
The Wisconsin offense should be preserved in the library of congress for cultural or aesthetic significance. It's antiquated but extremely effective. On most plays, you know immediately where Wisconsin is going with the ball. They run basic, zone blocking schemes but will bring two extra hats into the hole in the form of a fullback, pulling guard, or pulling tight end. If they take the point of attack, Gordon hits the hole hard. If the defense manages to clog the point of attack (which happens fairly often given how many people Wisconsin tries to shove through that hole), Gordon bounces the play outside or cuts back to daylight. You have to be very disciplined against Wisconsin's attack and resist the urge to collapse the entire defense on the point of attack. Even if you maintain gap integrity, Wisconsin will hit you with any number of counters that look like their power plays until it's too late. Wisconsin is not shy about sending all of its blockers left then sending the quarterback or wingback left on a naked boot or speed sweep.
Wisconsin football is mansome, power football. So, fittingly, let's start this review with the Wisconsin power:
Wisconsin is in 22 personnel with two tight ends and two running backs. The action is to the short side of the field and weak side of the formation despite the presence of a tight end. You don't find tight ends on the weak side of the formation often anymore but you do at Wisconsin. The play side of the line blocks down leaving the linebacker on the end of the line unblocked. The fullback kicks this defender out. Wisconsin then brings two more lead blockers (the backside guard and tight end) through the hole. The guard looks to kick a defender out and the tight end tries to seal the inside of the defense to cut off pursuit from the backside. This is an abnormal amount of firepower to bring in the hole on a power play but it's classic Wisconsin. The result, Gordon hits the hole, bounces outside and makes 42 yards. The link goes to video, here it is in gif form:
Here's another Wisconsin staple, the outside zone. Offensive linemen block the defensive linemen that cover them or reach to help on the linemen to the playside of them. Fullback leads into the hole, tight end charges through the backside of the line to block a linebacker and potentially create a cutback lane. This is 21 personnel with two running backs and one tight end but it's functionally an old power I:
Again, Nebraska doesn't defend the point of attack poorly, but failed to keep contain. Gordon, shows off his vision by bouncing the play to the outside for 60+ yards and balance hurdling over a Nebraska defender who comes in from the side. Here's the play in gif form:
And the hurdle because, wow:
Here's another outside zone at this link which should have been Nebraska's sign that their day was going to get a lot worse.
Wisconsin also runs an effective inside zone. It looks a lot like the outside zone but is designed for inside tackle running.
This works a lot like an old isolation play. Playside tackle and guard double team the defensive tackle. Tight end blocks the defensive end. Backside tackle blocks the backside end. Center fills on the backside defensive tackle. Backside guard pulls into the hole along with the fullback. Again, Wisconsin brings more hats than normal to the point of attack. Nebraska flows to the hole, so MelGor cuts back to daylight for a 39 yard touchdown and the NCAA record for yards in a single game.
When you load up to stop these power looks, here comes the counterpunch, Melvin Gordon on a speed sweep away from the action out of an outside zone look.
This play is identical to one the Badgers killed Nebraska with in the 2012 B1G championship game.
All the action goes one way, MelGor speeds the other. No pulling guards, tight ends, or fullbacks leading the way. The defense has to respect the zone look to the right leaving Gordon with only a safety to beat on the playside. Not to spoil it for you but . . . he does.
Wisconsin additionally punishes overpursuit with a tailback counter, a quarterback counter, a naked bootleg, and tons of other looks. This offense is old fashioned but the old stuff still works!
Gordon is an extremely effective back. He's not huge (barely over 200), but he's strong and has great balance. He's not that fast (listed as a 4.5 40 guy, I don't believe he's even that fast), but he has great vision and can find open space. Gordon is more about heart, technique, and training than raw natural skill. In that way, he reminds of Tre Mason. This year, Auburn has faced at least five backs with better natural talent: Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon, and Leonard Fournette. But right now, I'd take Gordon over any of those players except a healthy Todd Gurley.
I'd love to tell you that Wisconsin passes the ball effectively when they have to but frankly, they don't. Neither of Wisconsin's quarterbacks (red flag for multiple quarterbacks) have a completion percentage over 60%. In fact they've combined for 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions against fairly basic coverages that always have one eye in the backfield. Tanner McEvoy is their most dangerous quarterback because he is a stout runner, averaging 8.8 yards per carry. At this point, he's almost a wildcat quarterback because he hasn't been asked to throw a pass in four games.
This Wisconsin offense runs hot and cold. The same offense that destroyed Nebraska got shut out by Ohio State. Western Illinois held Gordon to under 100 yards rushing. Wisconsin had LSU beat before stalling out offensively in the fourth quarter.
I have a good feeling about this game. As long as Auburn has only had to worry about stopping the run (Arkansas and LSU) we've done fairly well. Wisconsin is going to make plays against our defense but not enough to keep pace with our offense. It wouldn't surprise me if Wisconsin had two long drives and two big plays against the Tigers. Auburn 45 Wisconsin 28.