by Andy Schaaf
After an agonizing week off the field leading up to the clash with the Leathernecks, all eyes were on Tanner McEvoy at 11 AM on Saturday morning. It was actually a little bit of a worry to me that the Badgers would be able to run so easily against the weaker competition that McEvoy wouldn't really be tested. While one could argue he wasn't really tested on Saturday because, hey, its Western Illinois, I don't think anyone would have guessed McEvoy's passing would lead the Badgers to victory. Then the Fighting Leathernecks shut down the Wisconsin run game.
How in the world did they do it? Obviously the talk after the game was how Western Illinois stacked the box. They set the tone with the first play. Wisconsin starts big with a 2 TE and FB set... It doesn’t go well.
Western Illinois ignores the possibility of a pass and drops everyone into the box, 7 men at the line of scrimmage, 2 LBs and two safeties deep, no one past 8 yards. Before the ball is even handed off, 9 players are attacking the hand off.
Give Western Illinois credit, they create a very solid push in the middle of the line, but its simply more men than the Badgers can block. Its like they chose “punt block” in Madden and Tanner McEvoy’s audible button was broken.
More of the same on the Badgers second possession. Here Wisconsin moves gets out of the TE heavy set, Western Illinois still has 8 in the box. This play gets blown up for no gain when 330 lb Dallas Lewallen is the pulling guard and gets beat to the spot by the 235 lb LB JJ Raffelson.
With Western Illinois selling out for the run, it too often created these type of matchups between a massive Wisconsin OL chasing a smaller, quicker Western Illinois defender.
The next play is a good example of how the smaller Western Illinois guys were able to disrupt the run game. That’s Tyler Marz getting burned on the outside, with a crashing LB filling the inside gap. The safety is already moving towards the line and no LB is respecting the pass.
The change in the Badgers offensive game plan started to happen towards the end of the second quarter and Ludwig went all-in with it by the third quarter. On the first play of the 3rd quarter Western Illinois once again stacks the box with 5 on the line and 3 in the LB spots.
This appeared to be a run/pass option as Gordon and Ramesh carried out the action like a hand-off may be coming while the entire OL run blocked. McEvoy correctly reads the stacked box and upon taking the snap all 3 Western Illinois LBs have forward momentum towards the line of scrimmage and Erickson has an easy 24 yard gain
By the 4th Quarter McEvoy had found his rhythm in the passing game. Wisconsin started max protecting to give him time, and the WRs/TEs had no trouble getting open. The quick pass to Erickson and RB receptions were also used to counter the Western Illinois defense.
You’d think the passing game would cause Western Illinois to adjust and therefore open the running game, but you’d be wrong. Here’s a first down play where they bring everyone to the line of scrimmage once again
Even on a likely passing down of 2nd and 13, Western Illinois has 8 in the box, and 10 guys within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage.
So that’s a lot of pictures and its pretty clear that at no point did Western Illinois really stop sending everyone they had towards the line of scrimmage. So besides the obvious of “stacking the box” how was Western Illinois able to stop the running game that LSU could not?
Wisconsin lineman struggled with the quickness of the lighter defensive players. Western Illinois’ starting defensive line went 260, 255, 260, 245 and they constantly sent a safety towards the line of scrimmage. My guess is that Wisconsin’s offensive line is as strong as any defensive line in the country, but 300 pound guys are rarely fast. The pass protection was solid despite the constant pressure from Western Illinois. The line had little trouble when they could sit back and allow the pressure to come with them, they did struggle when they were pulling and getting beat to the spot by the quicker defender.
Wisconsin was confused by the constant blitzing and line movement. Film on Western Illinois was likely limited and they probably showed a lot of blitzes last Saturday that they saved for this game. Wisconsin was late picking up a lot of the run blitzes and too many guys got through. The Western Illinois line constant slanted one way or the other and avoided directly engaging the Badgers OL. Again, too often the Badgers had a 300 lb lineman chasing a smaller defender.
Western Illinois sent everyone up to the line. Sometimes its as simple as it seems.
Will other teams copy the Western Illinois game plan (Or if you will, the 4th quarter LSU game plan)? After watching the passing game struggles versus LSU its hard to fault Western Illinois for their defensive game plan, it kept them in the game much longer than most thought. Wisconsin was perhaps too stubborn to adjust during the first 20 minutes but ultimately figured it out.
The extreme sell out on run defense still requires quick defenders and at least a little element of surprise on the angles the defenders come from, but also requires very good defensive backs to disrupt the passing game which obviously failed Western Illinois.
While most teams won’t have the defensive backs that LSU does they will have better DBs than Western Illinois, and I’d suspect the Western Illinois game plan of forcing McEvoy and the WRs to beat them will become the norm until Wisconsin's passing game is respected.