Craig Has The Scout - Wisconsin 2020
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Editor's note: I felt like this needed an intro for two reasons. One, the season is starting, which means there will be articles by many other authors besides me (Robert). So remember to check those bylines. Two, some might not be familiar with this series, so I thought I'd give it a quick description. This is Craig Has The Scout. It's written by Craig. He has the scout on all Illini opponents. Every Thursday, you can check IlliniBoard and find another scout from Craig. What our opponent does, what we do, how it might all play out. Enjoy.
Who: Wisconsin Badgers
When: 7:00 pm - October 23rd, 2020
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, WI
Head Coach: Paul Chryst. I always wonder how things play out in the alternate universe where Illinois hired Paul Chryst instead of Tim Beckman. Chryst and Narduzzi were allegedly the other two primary candidates (contrary to the Kevin Sumlin rumors), and he took the Pitt job later that year. Chryst is very boring, and runs a very predictable offense that gets results. Illinois would probably have seen worse results than the time he spent at Pitt, he was 19-19 in his time there. Illinois would be nearly a decade into that rebuild though and it would be interesting if he is a product of Wisconsin, or the Wisconsin success is due to him. Regardless, Chryst was the perfect hire for Alvarez. Alvarez is the type of man that hates when his favorite band tries for a new sound - he wants to keep reliving the same tracks of his youth over and over. And Chryst is the cover band delivering those sweet tunes.
Offensive Style: Power Run game out of multiple formations. The staff at Wisconsin did not turn over from last year, Joe Rudolph is still the OC and OL coach. Rudolph has shown more variety when he has players he can trust, but the hallmark of the Badgers is the run, which they call over 60% of the time. Wisconsin has major changes to the offensive personnel for 2020. Jonathan Taylor moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, and they lost three OL from last year. Jack Coan being injured might be addition by subtraction at QB. They lack a star running back which leaves a gaping hole in the back field. The Badgers will still be good, Rudolph is very good at assessing his capabilities and building his team around those.
Defensive Style: A 3-4 utilizing a lot of zone blitz. Jim Leonhard has brought a great deal of NFL tendencies to Wisconsin, and they have recruited players to provide the flexibility needed to run the defense. They will run zone blitzes and stack the line to generate simulated pressure and create issues for offensive protection schemes. The corners will also hold receivers on every play.
Specialists: Wisconsin graduated a great deal of depth last year, and many key cogs of the special teams move into new roles on the offense and defense respectively. As Robert has pointed out many times, Illinois has been very strong in utilizing the walk-on program building special teams units. The continuity and focus at Illinois should provide them an advantage on the special teams front.
Three Things to Watch
The new look Illini DL against the new look Badger OL. Wisconsin has a factory producing OL set up in Madison, but that doesn't mean they don't have some challenges integrating new pieces. The upshot for the Badgers is that the backups have a huge number of reps in the system, and they are leaning more heavily on the zone run scheme which helps. Illinois is integrating pieces that have reps, but lots of question marks for execution. Which unit has the shorter ramp up curve will be a huge difference.
The experienced Illini OL vs. the experienced Badger DL. I am extremely curious how Rod Smith is going to deal with the disruptive Badger D. Last year the Illini OL was solid against base pressure, but struggled in pass protection when Wisconsin ramped up the pressure. Rod Smith has the tools at TE to negate some of the scheming Wisconsin can bring at the cost of simplifying his play book. I would love to see what wrinkles Rod might add to the simplified look to create opportunities.
Which team executes better. Not having the opportunity to work out the kinks in the non-conference schedule, and starting off in cooler weather makes the game interesting. I think this will be a fairly sloppy game as both teams work on their identity and prepare for a fully loaded B1G schedule.
Scouting Review - Offense
Jonathan Taylor is a future college football hall of famer, but now wears the blue and white of the Indianapolis Colts. That leaves question marks at the RB position for the Badgers. While Wisconsin is great at reloading their squad year after year, they enter the year with a lot of new faces. The talent loss on offense is similar to what occurred for the defense in 2018. Jim Leonhard had a horrible year in 2018 as the scheme broke down due to mistakes and Wisconsin fell from a top ten caliber team to just outside the top-25 caliber team, finishing with an 8-5 year. While I'm not sure the Wisconsin team falls outside the top-25 this year, this team is much closer to the pack of B1G West teams than previous years.
Sophomore Nakia Watson should be the main focus to replace Taylor. Watson though will not be mistaken for Taylor. Watson has big play ability, but the consistency of Taylor will be missed. Additionally, the Badger OL is breaking in three new starters. This is the first Wisconsin OL I can remember not returning a multi-year starter. While the W on the helmet will be the same, the look and feel will be different for this version of the Badgers.
To simplify things as the team gels, Wisconsin is going to lean more heavily on the zone blocking scheme early in the season. The matchup with Illinois helps solidify that. The Badgers ran extensive amounts of zone runs against the Illini last year and rushed for 170 yards (4.3 YPC). The base zone run looks like this
Wisconsin likes to run this early in downs to get into manageable down/distance situations later in the drive. With a patient back, they grind out 3-4 yards on first down consistently. The Illini defensive front held the point of attack well on this last year, but the Badgers still moved the ball. This was the first play of the game against the Illini last year and it was the best run they had all day out of the zone run. Depending on the defensive alignment, they will move back and forth between strong and weak side runs.
Again, this is a play that will be used most often on 1st down. The Illini slowed down the Badgers last year by slanting the defensive front to tie up the zone blocks and prevent the Badgers from attacking the hole they wanted. I would watch for Wisconsin to bounce to the backside more often on the zone runs this year to help open that up.
Another element to slow the defensive front and LBs is to make them begin playing sideline to sideline. When the Badgers catch the LBs and safeties playing downhill on the zone run, they will mix in the Jet Sweep out of motion.
In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin struggled to move the ball between the tackles with all runs. To open up the running lanes, Rudolph began running zone blocking jet sweeps, this was the 2nd of three in a row. The result did not open up the middle lanes, but did allow the Badgers to move the ball on the perimeter. Conversely, against Illinois
They only ran it once, but it did slow the Illini downhill attack on the zone run. A downside, Danny Davis, hero of these two clips, returns. You will also notice he did both of these out of a motion change, Wisconsin will start pre-snap motion to help get defenses out of alignment and gain advantages at the point of attack. A struggle to run will mean they will begin motioning the backfield. If that doesn't loosen up the lanes, the jet sweeps follow. Wisconsin was a victim last year of an Illini defense selling out on stopping the run on 1st down. Although they are a downhill running team, expect them to work the sidelines more this year.
Rudolph will also run through a series of power run staples to try and find a play that works. Should the Illini struggle to stop these, expect the Badgers to feed the Illini front a steady diet of these plays. First up is the Buck Sweep
If Roderick Perry is as disruptive as Jamal Milan was last year, they will use this play to get the DL playing side to side and negate upfield penetration. The play allows a downblock by the center to occupy Perry and to run away from him. Groshek might be the primary back on this type of run since he is a receiving threat and would signal potential pass slowing the pursuit the Illini would bring from the safety position. The Badgers will also bring a few different versions of Power to the table
The pull/pin rules will be dictated by the alignment of the Illini D. Illinois used a higher percentage of snaps last year in an Under formation (a DE over the TE, the Nose over the center, the DT over the guard opposite the TE, and the final DE over the weak side tackle). The Illini did this primarily in passing situations to create mismatches in the pass rush, but Wisconsin may run Sweeps and Power against it to create big mismatches.
In the Barry Alvarez heyday, Wisconsin used single back formations almost exclusively. A modification made still in the Alvarez tenure was the use of the I formation, adding a fullback for lead purposes. Chryst still likes this formation, and they will utilize it at times. They tend to run weak side leads when the FB is in the game
The main purpose is to get a numbers advantage at the point of attack and have the running back in a 1 on 1 situation with the defensive secondary. Penetrating DL blow this type of play up. Rudolph will use the fullback as a decoy though to get the defense out of alignment, and motion him to an H-back type role
This play is a standard zone blocking scheme, but the Badgers showed the I-formation and set the defense how they wanted to gain an advantage. Illinois will generally set the defensive front, then not move the DL against motion, the LBs move to cover the change. Wisconsin will use this tendency to get the looks they prefer for the run game this way.
Wisconsin lost their primary receiving options from a year ago. They will be relying on Danny Davis to step into Quintez Cephus' role, and for Jake Ferguson (drink when it is mentioned he is Barry Alvarez's grandson) to step up his role in the offense. Ferguson and Wisconsin TEs in general are used as second level passing threats, and Ferguson is particularly good at getting himself open. Here is Ferguson on a PA pass in the Rose Bowl
Coan was going to Ferguson the whole time, and many might recognize this concept from the Tony Adams interception last year. The Wisconsin passing game uses it early and often. Another version of it without play action is here
In this play you can see a bad throw and great catch by Ferguson. The RB runs a dig route at about 5 yards, Ferguson went about 10, and you see at the end of the clip Cephus who ran a 15 yard route. The Illini LBs are responsible for the RB, which opens up that 2nd level and allows Wisconsin to punish teams with this route. It is more effective off of play action, but they run the play both ways. I'm sure Chryst picked up this passing concept when he worked for Mike Riley at Oregon State.
Another passing route Wisconsin uses often (and one that Coan excelled at) is the short crossing route. As the TE continues to attack the secondary, the LBs will trail and get out of their zones. Wisconsin is good about running a crossing route under the LBs and pressuring the D to play disciplined. Misses in coverage here result in opportunities with blockers downfield.
If you want to see what a slanting DL looks like, follow the Illini DL in this play.
The interesting part of this for me is the Badger OL pivoting 90degrees at the snap. Wisconsin did this multiple times against Oregon as well coupled with the QB boot. The upside is that it gets the QB moving and screens out an aggressive pass rush. It also limits the field and leaves the QB susceptible to edge pressure. The TE and RB are also blocking here, making this 70 protection which is unusual for Wisconsin in the recent past.
The final play I will show is one I am shocked Wisconsin did not run against Illinois last year.
The Illini safeties were selling out last year in run support. Although this is not completed (primarily because Coan underthrew it) this was wide open. The Illini safety pairings seem to be up in the air (although sleuthing by Robert might have uncovered it), but pass protection seems to be a concern on the back end. I expect Wisconsin to run this on the 2nd series to test the Illini secondary.
Wisconsin would normally have worked out the timing and changes for the new OL in spring ball. COVID eliminating spring ball means the line will be learning the nuances of each other in live action. Additionally, Taylor was VERY predictable for his OL in how he hit holes. While Watson and 3rd down back Groshek have experience, they may react differently to situations relative to previous years. I'm not sure losing Coan hurts, and Mertz is the higher talent at the position. It might lead to mistakes the Badgers have not seen in the past though as he learns on the job. The zone blocking scheme will be more prominently displayed in this game as it helps cover up some blocking sins, and the Badgers will take shots on big plays against aggressive Illini DL and safety play.
Scouting Review - Defense
Jim Leonhard returns a majority of his defense from a year ago, and it was easily a top-10 unit. Leonhard focuses on disruptive plays from the defense, and the calling card for the Badger D has been preventing teams from having sustained drives. The defense was one of the leaders last year in opponent drives that had negative yards.
With the focus on disruption, Wisconsin relies heavily on their linebacking corps. The last few years has brought a series of great college linebackers. The top two linebackers from last year (Chris Orr and Zack Baun) are both gone. Orr is the bigger loss as he was the quarterback of the defense and not easily replaced. This year, the biggest thing going for the Badgers is returning a bona fide great secondary (three All-B1G honorees) and the top 5 on the defensive line. To help the front get the pressure on the QB, Wisconsin mixes up between zone blitzing and press coverage on the perimeter.
Rod Smith was a bit hard to follow last year in his play calling. The magic of 2018 vanished, and Illinois struggled to consistently move the ball. The Illini relied on the defense and big plays to score points, and it produced a .500 team with an offense that struggled to generate first down (113th nationally). Rod did have flashes of brilliance and I am looking for this on Friday night. Here is a three play stretch from last year
Rod called these three plays in succession and put Wisconsin on their heels. It was a big change in the dynamics of the game and gave Illinois the boost they needed to compete. Illinois needs more of this to be competitive this weekend.
The Badger defense - similar to the Illini defense in 2019 - basically played man coverage all day with the safeties cheating into the run game.
You can see in this clip the safety on the top is playing the run first, although he has man coverage on the TE coming into the flat. Both safeties first steps were to the line of scrimmage.
On this play, the Badgers locked up man across the field. The Illini broke a big play on an assignment bust when the LB (57) took the RB and left Peters open to run.
Illinois will need to run Peters more often to soften the defense of Wisconsin.
The standard pressure of the Badgers is to overload a side and create mismatches.
The defense here is rushing the left side of the Illinois line only. The OL does a nice job sliding over to cover the blitz, but the dropping LB took away the main read (crossing route). Bhebhe was held on the outside in the press coverage and got the call in this case. The Wisconsin secondary is like the Wisconsin basketball team, they have a reputation for being clean and do not garner all the calls they deserve.
The LBs from Wisconsin are good at reading pass protection and bringing delayed pressure.
Corbin missed his blocking assignment here and the play was blown up by the LB reading Corbin showing pass protection.
The best way to slow down the Badger pressure is to keep them in their base shell and running on the interior.
Oregon was able to keep the Badger front at bay and generate positive outcomes on first down in the Rose Bowl.
When all else fails, the Illini need someone to have a great individual effort. That is why players like Dre Brown will be missed.
Wisconsin will be the 2nd best defense the Illini see all season. Wisconsin's strengths match against areas Illinois has the most returning star power. The key for Illinois is being able to generate big plays, they will not be able to sustain drives consistently against the Badger D.
What does it mean?
The Badgers had a down year in 2018 as they lost a significant amount of production on the defensive side of the ball. They are showing a similar trend this year on the offense, but the offense is less reliant on outstanding individual players versus the defense. Wisconsin is going to take a step back this year, but not as drastic as the 2018 team. The coaching staff has done a great job consistently developing OL, LBs and RBs. The concern for the Badgers will be if they have worked out their glitches prior to game time, and can they make adjustments to the Illinois game plan. They failed to adjust last year and it cost them the game.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to put the game into Graham Mertz's hands, and then make him uncomfortable. With Jonathan Taylor off to the NFL the Badger backfield is the least impressive it has been since the Bielema era. Jack Coan was efficient and knew the offense and was predictable (and a little too much so against Illinois a year ago). Mertz is a high end talent, but lacks experience. Forcing Mertz to make plays with a new OL and no clear #1 receiver gives Illinois the opportunity to force the Badgers out of their comfort zone and put the Illini offense in a position to win the game.
Illinois on the other hand is returning a majority of the offensive weapons from a year ago, and need to establish a healthy Mike Epstein. Peters has shown real flashes and has another year in the offense. With an experienced line, the Illini can afford to be a little conservative and force Leonhard into higher risk defenses allowing the receiving corps to take the top off the defense.
For Wisconsin to Win:
The Badger defense needs to show why the Illini offense last season was not much better than the product Garrick McGee put on the field his final year in Champaign. Illinois was bailed out with explosive plays a year ago, and if Wisconsin can keep the top on the defense, Illinois will struggle to sustain drives.
If the defense can stifle the Illini O, the Badgers can wear on the new Illini DL and lean on the running game allowing Mertz to make big plays at Wisconsin's discretion.
A 20-point win to open the season in a conference tilt is a pretty large ask for the Badgers. With all the unknowns mentioned above, I think this will be a fairly sloppy game, and should see Wisconsin get a lead and work the clock. I think the Badgers win comfortably, but not in a three score final. I'll take Illinois to cover.
YTD Against the Spread: