After Friday night’s dominant win over Illinois, one of the few concerns about the University of Wisconsin football team was the state of its rushing attack.
The stellar debut of redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz was the talk of the night and the weekend, giving the team’s 3.4 yards per attempt (182 yards on 54 attempts) on the ground ample cover from scrutiny.
However, after giving the game another watch, it’s clear that UW coach Paul Chryst’s initial assessment was correct — the No. 9 Badgers left a lot of rushing yards on the field against the Illinois.
“Few times it felt like we were off on a couple things. I thought we had some of the jet sweeps that could’ve been big plays for us,” Chryst said Friday night. “Certainly knew they weren’t just going to give you those yards, but I don’t know that we did everything in our power to … you’ve got to execute, right? I think that one guy here, one guy there, there’ll be a lot of good learning from it.”
What can we all learn from the debut of UW’s new-look rushing attack? Patience is key.
Let’s get into the film room to see why.
Situation: First-and-10 at the Illinois 19, early first quarter
Play: Nakia Watson rushes up the middle for 5 yards
Breakdown: Let’s start by saying nit-picking a 5-yard gain isn’t always wise, because this would be considered a good run by any metric.
But watch this one closely. As Watson approaches the line for the run, which appears to be called to run between the guard and tackle on the left side, his head never moves to scan his options. If he had, he may have the lane that was created to the right, in which tackle Logan Bruss (70) is accounting for the backside linebacker and Kedric Pryor (3) was there to pick up the play-side safety.
Cole Van Lanen (71) is engaged with Illinois’ top linebacker Jake Hansen as well, meaning that Watson likely would’ve been one-on-one with the backside safety for a chance at a touchdown.
Making such a read isn’t easy, but it’s patience and vision that separate solid and great backs. UW is used to having great backs the see chances like this.
Situation: Fourth-and-1 at the UW 47, late first quarter
Play: Nakia Watson rushes up middle for 1 yard
Breakdown: This top angle gives a great view of how patience would’ve helped the Badgers Friday night.
The situation calls for Watson to get 1 yard, with anything else being gravy. He gets a generous spot after going into the gap created by the down blocks by the right side of the offensive line and fullback John Chenal (44) taking on the playside linebacker. One could argue that Logan Bruss (60) was supposed to account for Illinois’ Jake Hansen, who makes the initial hit on Watson.
But look one gap to the right — Chenal, Jack Eschenbach (41) and Mason Stokke (34) have walled off their defenders and there’s a huge hole between Eschenbach and Stokke for Watson to gain more than enough for the first down. A safety eventually comes to fill that gap, but he wouldn’t have met Watson until the 50-yard line.
Watson makes this play much harder on himself, when a little bit of vision would’ve resulted in an easy first down and possibly a big play if he could break a tackle.
Situation: First-and-10 at the UW 6, early second quarter
Play: Danny Davis rushes for 4 yards
Breakdown: The Badgers get everything they could hope for on this play. Illinois is so focused on the run up the middle — I count eight defenders committed to Nakia Watson’s fake — that they get four blockers against three defenders from the left hash to the sideline.
Based on how Davis runs this and how the linemen block, it appears the play is drawn up to get Davis to the sideline, but blocks don’t always happen as they’re designed. In this case, Kendric Pryor walls off Illinois cornerback Tony Adams (6) and Cole Van Lanen (71) and Jake Ferguson (84) double-team the play-side linebacker, Khalan Tolson (45).
If Davis takes a half-second to pause and cut back inside, he’d have Josh Seltzner (70) running in front of him to cut down the play-side safety and 85 yards of open space to run. Instead, he over-runs it, and gets tripped up against the three blockers in front of him.
Davis should’ve been off to the races here.
Situation: First-and-10 at the UW 40, middle of the third quarter
Play: Kendric Pryor rushes for 2 yards
Breakdown: This is just bad luck.
Chryst mentioned this play specifically as one he thought was a big play that UW left on the field, and you can tell by Pryor’s reaction that he saw it, too.
The jet sweep has become a staple of the UW offense in recent years, and it’s particularly effective because the Badgers have so many tight ends and fullbacks that can seal edges or create lanes to the middle. Look at how Ferguson fakes left, but then is able to get his head and shoulder into the hole and wall off Nate Hobbs (8).
As he does that, Hayden Rucci (87) is going up field stalking the play-side safety. Assuming Rucci makes that block, Pryor is likely scoring if he keeps his feet.
Between this play and the Davis miscue on a jet sweep, there’s potentially 120-plus rushing yards the Badgers could’ve added to their game total.
Situation: Second-and-4 at the Illinois 14, middle of the fourth quarter
Play: Garrett Groshek rushes left and gains 9 yards
Breakdown: Leave it to a veteran to show a young backfield how it’s done.
Watch how Groshek approaches the line and hesitates as he scans his blocks. The play’s designed to go left, but he gives a check to the right, which gives his blockers time to lock on and drive defenders out of the way.
As Groshek gets to the line, John Chenal (44) has just engaged with his defender, and a defensive lineman appears to be crossing the face of left guard Josh Seltzner (70). Groshek hesitates, allowing Seltzner to get his head and shoulder back into good position and seal his man, while Chenal’s defender tries to spin inside, allowing Chenal to run him out of the play.
Groshek heads to the outside and gains 9 yards before Sydney Brown (30) takes him down. (Coincidentally, this is solid play by Brown, avoiding bodies and wrapping Groshek up at the hips.)
The run game, even without being as effective as usual, created multiple play-action opportunities for the offense. But against some of the Big Ten’s better teams, it’ll need to convert on its chances better than it did Friday night.