Deceptively simple Badgers offense enjoying unprecedented success
NC State transfer Russell Wilson has added dangerous element to Badgers' attack
Offense still blue-collar at its core, but OC Paul Chryst has injected modern threat
No. 7 Badgers will face their first test of the year Saturday vs. No. 8 Cornhuskers
Wisconsin's offensive approach must seem pretty straightforward to the average viewer: run it up the gut 40 or 50 times behind a seemingly endless assembly line of big, burly linemen. As star tailback Montee Ball said: "We try to impose our will on our opponents, keep pounding them until the other team gives up."
If it were that simple, quarterback Russell Wilson wouldn't have to be a walking dictionary. At some point in No. 7 Wisconsin's (4-0) highly anticipated Big Ten opener Saturday night against No. 8 Nebraska (4-0), Wilson may walk into the offensive huddle and bark the following play call: "King Right Wash Mix Big Chili Back Phony Divide."
Contained in those nine words of ostensible gibberish are instructions for all 11 players on the field. A guard may need to pull, a tackle may need to slide, a receiver may need to throw a particular block, a tight end may need to line up in a different position and a running back may need to follow a certain lineman. The quarterback may have the option to check from a run to a pass, or vice versa.
"We ask everybody to be part of every play," said offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. "A lot of people say [our offense] is not pretty, but it works. Well, it is pretty to us when you have a run where everyone's on target, their pad level is where it needs to be, the back knows who he needs to make miss. We have an unselfish group of guys that want to do their best but truly want the group to be successful."
Right now Chryst's group is enjoying more success than at any point in Wisconsin's history. It's led the Big Ten in scoring the past two seasons, with last year's Rose Bowl team averaging a staggering 45.2 points in conference play, second-highest in Big Ten history. Through four games this season, against admittedly lightweight competition (Wisconsin's foes to date are a combined 5-10), that number is up to 48.5.
At its core, Wisconsin still holds the same blue-collar offensive philosophy it's had since former coach Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison more than 20 years ago. Mainly, it knows its biggest recruiting strength is linemen ("We have a lot of big people in our state," said Alvarez), and it only makes sense to employ them in a physical, run-based offense.
"It's very difficult to simulate what we do offensively," said Badgers coach Bret Bielema. "Some schools don't even have a fullback; we have three that are over 250 pounds. Our linemen, they're 320, 330 pounds, but they run like they're 280."
But the Badgers' recent rise in productivity under Alvarez's successor, Bielema, and his offensive guru, Chryst -- both of whom Alvarez hired shortly before switching to the athletic director's seat in 2006 -- may have less to do with the guys up front than the one under center.
Chryst, a mild-mannered Madison native and Wisconsin alum, far prefers bestowing praise on his players than talking about his own contributions, but the former San Diego Chargers assistant and Oregon State offensive coordinator (he credits Norv Turner and Mike Riley as his biggest influences and employs a West Coast-flavored playbook) has made an undeniable mark on the Badgers' passing game. His past three starting quarterbacks -- John Stocco, Tyler Donovan and Scott Tolzien -- rank among the program's top four in career completion percentage. Tolzien, last year's starter, set a school record and led the Big Ten in pass efficiency (165.9).
"We took the blueprint from coach Alvarez and made some modifications," said Bielema. "We don't want to erase the history coach Alvarez had with guys like Ron Dayne. Those four years he was running wild [1996-99], that's the stereotype people always go back to. But we're one of the few teams to average 200 yards rushing and passing [the past three seasons]. Balance is critical."
People around the sport have taken notice. Texas coach Mack Brown, for one, pursued Chryst for his offensive coordinator opening last offseason.
"Paul is very innovative," said Alvarez. "He does a great job taking advantage of his personnel and maximizing their abilities. Paul creates a lot of problems with the changing of formations and moving the ball around."
And this year, Chryst has a splashy new toy to play with: NC State transfer Wilson. Wisconsin has traditionally relied on unsung but effective quarterbacks, including two (Brooks Bollinger and Jim Sorgi) who went on to play on Sundays. But Wilson, a three-year starter in Raleigh who chose Wisconsin over Auburn when he decided last summer to ditch his single-A baseball team and play one more year of college football, is by far the most gifted and athletic quarterback of the Alvarez-Bielema era.
So far the former All-ACC quarterback has completed 75.8 percent of his passes for 1,136 yards, 11 touchdowns and one interception to rank second nationally in pass efficiency behind only Baylor's Robert Griffin III. With a deft touch on deep balls, Wilson is averaging 16.5 yards per completion. And while he's rushed only 16 times (the highlight: a 46-yard touchdown run in Wisconsin's opener against UNLV), his ability to stretch plays and throw on the run has added a dangerous new dimension to the Badgers' offense.
"Russell Wilson being there is a game changer," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who faced Alvarez's offenses as a player in the mid-90s and Bielema's as a coach. "Let's say you do a great job of key reading, do a great job of reacting to the play-action pass -- now Russell can pull it down and run. They haven't had a guy that can do that probably since Jim Sorgi [in 2003]."
Arguably Wilson's most impressive accomplishment to date was mastering Chryst's dense playbook in less than two months between his summer arrival and the Badgers' first game. "I'm a quick learner," said the 22-year-old, who earned his NC State communications degree in three years, thus allowing him to transfer without sitting out a season. "I was in [the film room] 10 to 12 hours a day." He also met frequently with Chryst, who added a shotgun zone-read component to the offense to better suit Wilson.
Alongside Wilson and the tailbacks Ball and James White, Wisconsin boasts pro-caliber receiver Nick Toon at one spot and rising star sophomore Jared Abbrederis at the other; a tight end, sophomore Jacob Pedersen, who seamlessly succeeded 2010 All-America Lance Kendricks; and another deep offensive line, led by 6-foot-7, 330-pound right tackle Josh Oglesby.
"It's probably the most complete [offense] we've had," said Bielema. "We may have had a better player at one of the positions, but not playing all together the way we have right now."
It's an offense, however, that has yet to be seriously challenged, having beaten UNLV (51-17), Oregon State (35-0), Northern Illinois (49-7) and South Dakota (59-10). That changes this weekend when the Huskers and their estimated horde of 30,000 traveling fans visit Madison for Nebraska's first Big Ten conference game. Bo Pelini's usually dominant defense has been disappointing to this point, ranking just 52nd nationally in yards allowed (349.8 per game), but it still boasts star power with defensive tackle Jared Crick, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who, due to injuries, will be playing together in the same game for the first time this year. Pelini shuffled three of his four starting defensive backs last week, and one can expect he and brother Carl (Nebraska's defensive coordinator) to present new looks they've presumably been saving for this game.
"I think Carl and Bo together, you have two great defensive minds there," said Bielema. "But I just think that they [do] really, it is complex but ... if you really understand what they're trying to do, it's pretty basic as well in the concepts and ideas."
Hmm. He almost sounds like an opposing coach describing Wisconsin's offense.
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