After months of anticipation, the 2015 football season is finally drawing near, and the blood-drenched waves of the Crimson Tide will be rolling into the heart of Texas to do battle with the #20 Wisconsin Badgers. There has been all kinds of hand-wringing and gumping alike, and now it's finally time to sit back and kick this thing off.
Despite having four different coaches in the last decade, Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent programs in the country, both in their style of play and the results they enjoy because of it. The hiring of new head coach Paul Chryst was truly a microcosm of the program itself.
A former quarterback and offensive coordinator in Madison, Chryst is both new and old, familiar and different. As the premier program in the Big Ten West, the Badgers look to continue their reign at the top of the division in 2015 with many of the same elements that got them there in the first place. As Coach Bryant famously put it, "the same things win that have always won," and Barry Alvarez's program is a shining example of this.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The last time we saw Nick Saban's team, familiar foe Urban Meyer was utilizing the Big Ten version of his Smashmouth Spread Option to gash the Crimson Tide defense. However, the Badgers run a much more conventional Big Ten type of offense: the Traditional Pro Style offense. Chryst was the offensive coordinator under Bret Bielema when guys like P.J. Hill, John Clay, James White, and Montee Ball were carving up defenses on the ground. As the head coach at Pittsburgh, Chryst turned James Conner into the ACC Player of the Year last season, as he ran for 1,765 yards on 298 attempts (5.9 YPC) and an ACC record 26 rushing touchdowns. The Badgers are going to try and establish the run.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin, running the ball on Alabama's defense isn't exactly an easy thing to accomplish, especially out of the Traditional Pro Style. To make things even more difficult for the Badgers, there has been a bunch of attrition and mix-and-matching going on up front along the offensive line. Chryst and company may have to get a little bit creative in order to open up some space for guys like Corey Clement and Taiwan Deal out of the backfield.
In the neutral site opener against LSU last season, Wisconsin actually tore it up on the ground with Melvin Gordon. Part of the reason they were able to keep coming at the Tigers in between the tackles was because they burned LSU with a jet sweep early for the game's first score. The Badgers come out in a typical set for them. They have two tight ends lined up on the strong-side, two receivers out wide on the opposite side of the field, and a single runningback (in this case, Clement) behind then-quarterback Tanner McEvoy. Les Miles and John Chavis have the Tigers lined-up in their base 4-3 Cover 2 look. Reggie Love motions across the field, and Wisconsin's about to school LSU the old fashioned way.
McEvoy is going to hand the ball off to Love on the Jet Sweep, but the offensive line is going to block down on the defensive line and try to open up the weak-side B-Gap, between the right guard and the right tackle. This is going to give the impression that the sweep is a decoy and the ball is going to go to Clement. Boy, does LSU bite on that one. Look at the heads of the defenders who aren't already being blocked out of the play. They are staring straight into the backfield, waiting to swarm to Clement when he gets the ball.
By the time the second-level defenders recognize what's happening, it's too late. Check out how strong-side defensive end Danielle Hunter's head is contorted away from the direction of his body. He's already beat, and he knows it. That's the classic "whoops, my bad" look. From there the play is pretty much over. Wisconsin has created a three-on-two situation on the outside, where tight ends Derek Watt and Sam Arneson just have to lay clean blocks on cornerback Tre'Davious White and safety Jalen Mills. Guess who wins that battle?
Wisconsin used the threat of their power running ability to fool the LSU defense on this play, which opened up a favorable match-up on the outside where they out-numbered the Tigers in both players and girth at the point of attack. This huge play also opened up space between the tackles later in the game, as the second-level defenders had to think ever so slightly more before reacting. Don't be surprised to see Wisconsin try to run a few plays like this against the Crimson Tide, as they will need all the help they can get softening up the middle of the Alabama defense.
Most teams usually use the threat of the pass to accomplish this feat, but Wisconsin has had their fair share of struggles in the passing department lately.
Suffice to say, Joel Stave has had his issues throwing the football. It's not all on him, of course, as the receiving corps hasn't exactly torn it up themselves. But in their four match-ups with ranked opponents last season in which Stave was starting (Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Auburn), the veteran quarterback went 49/99 (49.5% Completion %) for 569 yards (5.75 YPA) with four touchdowns to six interceptions.
Paul Chryst is known as a bit of a quarterback whisperer, and there are a few interesting pieces at receiver in Alex Erickson, Jordan Frederick, Robert Wheelwright, and uber-athlete McEvoy, but the Badgers would have had to made serious strides over the off-season in order to make this a competent unit.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Make no mistake about it, when Wisconsin's offense is on the field, they are going to play old-school power football. However, their defense has evolved a bit in the last few years. Dave Aranda took over as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator when Gary Anderson came to Madison in 2013 and quickly implemented a 3-4 base defense. However, the 2015 version, much like the 2014 one, may not look exactly like what many consider a 3-4 to look like.
Instead of having a bunch of monstrous bodies who eat up space and form an impenetrable wall like more traditional 3-4 teams (such as Saban's Alabama teams, especially from 2008-2012), Aranda's unit is much lighter and quicker. The Badgers are undersized in both the trenches and in the linebacking corps, yet they haven't seen much of a drop off in their ability to stop power run games. The reason why is because they still execute the concepts of the 3-4, except they do so by aggressively flowing to the ball with great speed.
Going back to the LSU game, the Badgers are going to display exactly how they go about shutting down traditional power run games. LSU comes out in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) on 1st and 10 in the middle of the field. The Tigers are going to run their classic quick pitch with runningback Terrence Magee to the strong-side. As shown in the above image, Wisconsin's down linemen have the same 2-Gap responsibilities that most 3-4 defenses require out of their big guys. It's a read-and-react type of defense, as the lineman must decide which of their two gaps they must occupy. The two outside linebackers, Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert, are responsible for setting the edge; however, Schobert is actually going to be crashing the C-Gap now, since tight end Dillon Gordon is now set up on the strong-side.
The second line of defense is where Wisconsin's aggressive philosophy comes into effect. The two inside linebackers, Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch (both of whom have graduated), are going to combine with strong safety Michael Caputo to form a fast-flowing triangle of defense. The three of them have been given the keys to the defense, as they will have to decide whether to aggressively look to fill lanes in the run game or drop back into coverage.
Caputo is a classic box safety who will be used in a similar way as Landon Collins was last season for the Crimson Tide. His ability to swarm to the ball in run support makes him an invaluable asset against heavy run sets. If the the middle triumvirate decides to go after the run, Landsich will now be responsible for setting the edge, since Schobert no longer can. Caputo and Trotter are both going to watch the motion of the two backs to decide where to attack.
The front five do a great job of occupying their gaps, as there is not a cutback lane in sight for Magee. Now it's time for the middle three players to take over. Landisch is going to crash to the outside, looking to turn Magee back towards the middle of the field. Trotter plans on blowing it up from there, but in case fullback Connor Neighbors is able to land the block (he doesn't), Caputo will be there to clean it all up.
Wisconsin is able to tee off on more traditional run games by simply filling lanes and swarming to the ball, and they execute this practice at a high level. LSU's ground game was mostly held in check the entire night in last season's opener. If it wasn't for a couple of bombs on broken plays, Wisconsin would have finished the season 2-0 against the SEC West, which would have been quite the accomplishment.
So how can Alabama thwart the Badgers' quick and aggressive 3-4 look? There are a couple of ways to go about doing this, but with at least one new quarterback playing his first meaningful snaps of his collegiate career, it would be best to avoid obvious passing situations. Play-action passes on first down will be one of the major keys to Alabama coming away with a victory Saturday night. A good play-action fake will be enough to freeze that inside triangle of defenders and open up lanes in the passing game.
In their game against Minnesota last season, the Badgers were almost exclusively in their 3-4 the entire game. Now, Alabama probably isn't going to line-up in many old-school heavy run sets on Saturday night, but they will absolutely utilize many of the same concepts used in this play. The Golden Gophers are going to run play-action to the strong-side, which is going to force the three middle defenders to make a decision as to whether or not they need to attack. The tight end lined up on the line of scrimmage and the fullback are going to peel off of their blocks into the flats, and the wide receiver on the far side is going to come across on a drag. While all of this confusion is going on, All-Big Ten tight end Maxx Williams is going to run a drag of his own, crossing with the receiver in the middle of the field. Wisconsin is showing a Cover 3 look, as the corners and free safety are each playing back.
As quarterback Mitch Liedner fakes the handoff to star runningback David Cobb, the three middle defenders keep their wits about them and continue to read the play. However, they start to break down as the confusion begins to set in. Landisch charges after the quarterback on a delayed blitz (whether that was called or not isn't clear). As Williams begins to cross field, Trotter doesn't pick up on it, as his head is still peering into the backfield.
Trotter realizes it's a play-action too late, and instead starts to run with the decoy tight end. Caputo figures out what is going on, but he's already toast at this point, as Williams is standing wide open right in front of Leidner. To make matters worse for the Badgers, the two defensive backs in the field side have been completely fooled as well, as they don't even notice Williams coming across the middle. They have already bailed out to the other side to help cover the crossing receiver and the aforementioned decoy tight end.
Again, Alabama probably isn't going to run too many heavy sets like the one the Gophers ran, but this concept can be utilized in a number of ways.
The above image is one way that Alabama may decide to attack Wisconsin on 1st and 10. A play-action to the strong-side with someone like OJ Howard crossing drag routes underneath with the split end on the opposite side. Easy throws like this could be a huge boost of confidence to whoever is underneath center for the Crimson Tide. With an explosive player like Howard getting the ball out in space by taking advantage of Wisconsin's aggressive 3-4 base, it could be an easy throw that does a lot of damage.
These kinds of throws may force the Badgers to switch to their 2-4-5 Nickel package (their favorite formation to defend the pass) on standard downs, which could open up interior run lanes for Derrick Henry and company.
Winning first downs will be one of the main keys to this game. Both teams are going to rely heavily on trying to establish the run on standard downs, but it won't be easy going up against their respective opposition. Whichever team can take pressure off of the running game by opening things up in the passing lanes will more than likely come away with a victory Saturday night.