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.