Wisconsin: The Old School One Back Run Team

By Ross Fulton on November 13, 2012 at 3:00p

As is always true when Ohio State and Wisconsin meet, there is perhaps no more key match-up than the Buckeye defense versus the Badger run game.

In 2010, Wisconsin was largely able to run at will, fueling the Badger victory. In 2011, the Buckeyes turned the tables, rendering Wisconsin largely one-dimensional and enabling OSU to prevail. As such, it is critical to understand the Wisconsin run game and how the Buckeyes may respond. 

The Wisconsin Run Game: Common Ancestor

It may not look like it at first glance, but Wisconsin's offense shares the same roots with Urban Meyer's—that being the one-back zone offense pioneered by Dennis Erickson in college and Joe Gibbs in the NFL. Unlike Meyer, however, Wisconsin never moved away from the under center, one-back aspect of this offense, instead doubling down on the run-first zone aspect through the employment of multiple tight ends.

This year, the Badgers experienced early struggles as they transitioned to a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada. Canada has made some changes at the margins to the Wisconsin attack. The Badgers often shift pre-snap and feature more formations. They also use more shotgun, even featuring the occasional lead quarterback run. But the bread and butter of the offense is the same: an offense centered around inside zone, outside zone, and power, with wide receiver reverses and play-action passing built off of that.

Mind the Gap

The Wisconsin offense is premised around working from 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) with a tight end and H-back. 

Wisconsin's use of two tight ends presents the defense with 8 gaps it must defend. This is particularly effective with zone runs, as it provides more cut-back opportunities. It also allows the Badgers to shift where those gaps occur. Wisconsin can present a balanced look such as above, or a heavy overload tight wing (a tight end with a wingback to one side and two WR to the other). The latter establishes 5 gaps to the two tight end side from which they can either attack the strength or have the wingback block back across the play-side zone run, creating a natural cut-back gap. As Meyer stated, the Badgers make it difficult for defenses to be gap sound based upon the shifting of those gaps and the ability for zone runs to hit throughout the front.

Zone It Out

Just like Gibbs' Redskin squads, the personnel groupings set up Wisconsin's yin and yang—the inside and outside zone. From these heavy formations, Wisconsin wants to get the ball deep to their tailbacks and let them use their vision to cut upfield. Here is where the Badgers' versatile use of their H-back comes in handy. As noted, Wisconsin can have him block back across the formation to create a natural cut-back. They will also align him at fullback and insert him play-side as a lead blocker. 

Power is the Badgers' change-up, particularly in short yardage. As opposed to cutting back the zone play, here the Wisconsin running backs look to set up their blocks to bounce the play outside.


Wisconsin uses its wide receiver reverses and play-action bootleg game to both constrain a defense from overplaying the zone runs, but also to accentuate it. Off inside zone, Wisconsin will often fake or give either a jet or rocket sweep. The purpose is the same as a zone read. Wisconsin wants to hold the defense's backside to open cut-back lanes for the zone play, or punish a defense that overplays the front side. Below is a typical Wisconsin run play. Here, the Badgers run lead inside zone away from the TE with rocket sweep action. The Badgers put James White in the slot to run the sweep action.

As Montee Ball presses the hole, the backside linebacker is held by the sweep fake, developing a natural cut-back lane.

Ball is able to hit the cut-back and get to the second level before the backside linebacker commits, leading to a 50-yard touchdown run.

Wisconsin's preferred movement play-action passing is also based off the zone run game. And, as with the run game, the Badger offense also utilizes the multi-faceted nature of the tight end position. As coaching great Homer Smith stated:

It takes a sixth frontal player (not counting the QB) to pull an identifiable pass defender into the front and to give the blockers something to work with to keep the center off the island. It takes the sixth, just as it takes him to deal with a blitz. Which is a better sixth [blocker, a tight-end or a running back]? A TE is more of a threat with the delayed pass that makes the pass defender on him stay at bay while the TE blocks the rusher. I think a TE is the better.

The two tight ends both force a defense to defend the run gap created by the tight end's insertion, as well as account for that same player as an immediate vertical pass threat. The Badgers want to get a defensive back seven to over-commit to the frontside zone run game and then bootleg away with a weak flood route. Wisconsin senior QB Curt Phillips also has more of the mobility needed to threaten the defense with a run-pass threat on boot action.

Priority Number 1, 2 and 3

It goes without saying that the Buckeye defense must first and foremost stop the Wisconsin run game. While Wisconsin was able to still move the football last season against OSU when forced to pass, the Badgers do not have nearly the quarterback play they received last year from Russell Wilson. Nor does Wisconsin have the same weapons at wideout or tight end. If the Buckeye defense is able to slow down the Badger run game, then they will be in a good position to be successful. Look for OSU to borrow a page from their Penn State game plan. There, OSU played ample amounts of cover-1 against the Nittany Lion base personnel, walking CJ Barnett up into the box.

The Buckeyes will also look to mix in some overload man and zone blitzes. When Wisconsin gets in shotgun and/or 10 personnel in run situations, look for OSU to employ cover-4 to account for the receiving threats while still providing alley run support, as the Badgers like to run pin and pull stretch from shotgun. 

Wisconsin's most talented offensive weapons are its two tailbacks. As in the example above, look for the Badgers to move those two—particularly White—around, trying to get them the ball through different methods, such as bubble screens. If the Buckeyes are in man coverage their secondary must stay disciplined and not over-commit to run action. The Buckeye defense has largely been successful this year in stopping opposing run games. But Wisconsin will provide OSU with a far stiffer test. If the OSU defense is able to continue its success against the run, the Buckeyes should be in a good position to leave Madison with a win.


Comments Show All Comments

buckeye76BHop's picture

Great points as usual Ross...but none were more important than this one:

While Wisconsin was able to still move the football last season against OSU when forced to pass, the Badgers do not have nearly the quarterback play they received last year from Russell Wilson. Nor does Wisconsin have the same weapons at wideout or tight end.

If OSU doesn't allow Wisky's QB to hurt them in situations where our defense stops the run, then OSU will dominate them IMO.  If not...then it could be a close one and Wisky's QB (who has literally "no" experience in a real game) could shock us a bit.  However, I'm seriously doubting that will happen.  With Sabino back and Boren now at MLB...I'm not worried about them running the ball like last year (not to mention your point Ross about their lack of weapons).  And accompany that with a bye week to allow for most to get healthy besides Dunn.  Man is it Saturday yet???  GO BUCKS!

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

Ross Fulton's picture

I do think (and based on his comments, I think Meyer thinks so also) that Wisconsin will try to use Phillips to run some to catch OSU off-guard.  They did some of this against Wisky, both with bootlegs that were called runs and with lead QB plays from shotgun.

O-H Kee Pa's picture

It's not our D that I'm worried about. Because Wisky generally has a knack for being a pain in the ass and sticking around longer than they should, I'm more worried about our special teams being exploited.

Ross Fulton's picture

I do think Wisky needs to make a special games play like it did in '10.  A punt block is the most obvious, because every team has had a chance to block a punt against OSU.  Other than that OSU's special teams have been pretty good.

timdogdad's picture

besides russell wilson going nfl qb in the last 2 minutes, our d did very well last year.  it was unreal how many yards they had against us-it was way below their average.  i hope we start well on d and wisky remembers that they were basically shut down last year and gets frustrated.  i think our d will bring more intensity than last year because we're on the road in a hostile game.   lets see a lot of 3rd and 7's and 8's and making  their back up's back up qb  have to throw it away or do something stupid. 


@O-H KEE PA, that is my big worry as well, also penalties. Our boys have a problem with hitting after the whistle blows.

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O-H Kee Pa's picture

Definitely. It will drive me INSANE if any of our DBs commit PI on third down because they didn't (as they do time and time again) turn their damn heads. Stopping Wisky is straightforward enough; let's not complicate things by making their third string QB look like a world beater.

OSUBias's picture

It's really a matter of our front 4-5 continuing to eat up all the blockers, or letting the Wisky linemen get to the second level. If the first one happens, we'll shut them down (like 2011). If the second one happens, it's going to be a long day (2010).
Look at the video of us against PSU. 10 of our guys are in the picture and it's zoomed in to only show like 10 yards of the field. They are running with two TE's and two H backs, yet when the handoff occurs (roughly the 2 second mark) we still have 5 guys free of blockers within 5 yards of the line. Spence was crashing the edge backside to prevent the cutback (that'll be huge this week). 2 of the LBs get eaten up by guys getting into them at the second level (Boren and Shazier), but 1 of them (Williams) and 1 of the back 4 (Barnet) combine to stop the play before it goes anywhere. But of those guys that were free, 1 was a safety (Barnet) and 2 were corners. Williams actually took on a blocker and got off to make the tackle. Hopefully Sabino can continue that trend from our SAM. I'll be the first to admit I was skeptical of Williams playing LB, but he has been fantastic playing the strong side. I'm not convinced it's a better LB corp with Sabino over him at this point.
If we don't have to respect the passing game and can get the secondary playing aggressive run defense behind a strong dline effort, it's going to be a good day to be a Buckeye. If they mix it up and we have to back off, it's going to be a lot better for them.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Ross Fulton's picture

In 2010 we played a conservative defense to a fault. We continued to sit in our base 4-3 under front. Wisconsin used two tight ends, and OSU did not adjust to defend all 8 gaps. The response was easy running lanes.  OSU eventually adjusted in the second half, but by that time it was too late.  I think this was just a result of the fact that it had been so long since OSU got run on they got cocky. This didn't happen last year.

I seriously doubt that will happen this year.  If it began to happen I'm pretty sure Meyer would be in Vrabel's face by the third play (he likes yelling at Vrabel for whatever reason). 

Instead, I think the opposite is the potential problem--that being Wisconsin able to exploit constraint plays against an over-aggressive defense. And if you are in cover-1, you better quickly adjust how your secondary responsibilities when that receiver goes into the backfield.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

How many contraint plays do you think they run/game?  I'm just not convinced that they'll be able to sustain drives.  Maybe we get burned for a few big plays, but I'm not sure that will be enough for them to win.  They're going to have to win this game with their defense and special teams.

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LABuckeye's picture

I fully expect Bielema to have this expression after the game on Saturday...


Doc's picture

Ross, what is your prediction for the game?  You were pretty close with PSU.

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Ross Fulton's picture

I see OSU winning by 2 scores (or more). My instinct is 31-17 OSU.

bassplayer7770's picture

Not according to Mark May.  He thinks Wisky will win easily and run for over 300 yards against us because they ran for over 500 yards against Indiana.  How's that for logic?  ;-)
On a side note, it was interesting that Brian Griese picked the Buckeyes saying Wisky wouldn't have an answer for Braxton.

Ross Fulton's picture

According to Mark May OSU is about 5-5 this year...


When you accept that he and Lou Holtz are just there to troll, it really becomes pretty humorous...

NEWBrutus's picture

Every offensive snap from Wisconsin last year against our d...in 9 minutes...(I'm not trying to upstage Ross, just found this when looking for other stuff)
1.  The little tight end/ full back waggle play seems to be a bread and butter staple of the badger passing game.  Easy completion, tough to defend. We will see it more than once.   
2.  Russel WIlson was a talented young man.  He really made Wisconsin a much tougher team to defend. 
3.  Tackle, Tackle, Tackle.  We did quite well last year against them.  The DL just blew stuff up all day long.  We need them to dominate up front again. 
4.  Leverage.  See above. 
5.  Limit first and second down success.  make them play third and long.
6.  Jet sweep.  Killed us in 2010, did better against it in 2011. 
The badgers do have Aberderis, but Nick Toon is no longer there and Russel Wilson isn't either. This is a favorable matchup for our Defense.  The other two "power run teams" (PSU and MSU) we stuffed.  I like our DL to control the line of scrimmage and get pressure on their QB.  Will they finally call holding?  (In the clip above, you can see our guys getting undressed on most of the passing downs.) 

Ross Fulton's picture

Thanks for posting. The immediate thing I would say is what I thought at the time last year--if they want to throw play action flat routes to their FB/H-Back I am fine with that. You have to pick and choose your spots and that guy is not a threat to do anything with the football once he catches it.

AltaBuck's picture

Dline gap integrity - This is a perfect match-up for the Dline. I feel confident they will hold their own.
LB/safety leverage. Despite is lack of lateral speed, Boren does a great job keeping leverage. Great instincts and he seldom over pursues. I'm a bit worried about Shazier and Sabino getting burned and over running plays. Part of me almost wants the LBs to play more off of the LoS so they have better pursuit angles but then I think about 2010.

I am Groot - Groot

grant87's picture

Ross would you match up Roby or Howard on Abbrederis?  How would you defend the jet sweep? 

I thought Howard could do the job.  I thought moving Barnett and Roby up closer to the line for jet sweeps and hopefully get a couple of picks.  I would put Williams on Pedersen. fyi  Phillips is 11-19 106 yards 1 td and 1 int for his career. (edit)So is getting to him the key?

Wisconsin's defense seems to get tired as the games go along.  Well the tougher games  Utah St, MSU and Nebraska. Badger defense is very average imo.  Good LBers and Smith CB is ok.  But DL and S are very suspect.

I see the game going like this  10-10 end of 1st Q, 24-10 at half ,31-17 at end of 3Q and finish 41-20. 

  Am I way off?  Thoughts?

Maybe tomorrow, when today will be yesterday things will be clearer.


Ross Fulton's picture

FYI, OSU does not 'match up' their corners. Roby is the boundary corner and Howard is the field corner. That is because Roby is a) more physical, and b) more able to be on an "island' when a team puts trips to the field and a signle receiver to the boundary.  

grant87's picture

Thanks for reply!

Maybe tomorrow, when today will be yesterday things will be clearer.