The Ohio State Buckeyes are at their first check point of the 2022 season after finishing their non-conference slate of games. Starting the season 3-0, the Buckeyes have not been perfect, but the signs of a potential College Football Playoff team are there. In a lot of ways, the first three games have been a night and day transformation compared to last season, where the defense could never truly find its footing and the offense’s youthfulness became apparent at times against better teams.
This season, the Ohio State offense has been in cruise control since the second half of their matchup against Notre Dame. In the three non-conference games, they began to find their 2022 identity with brand of physical, explosive football which was highlighted in their 77-point outing against Toledo. On the other side, Jim Knowles has the Ohio State defense playing with a lot of confidence, especially in the front seven. The two issues are health (can’t control) and giving up big plays, which is part Knowles’ high-risk, high-reward philosophy.
This takes us to the start of conference play against the Wisconsin Badgers. Under coach Paul Chryst, there were hopes of a modernized passing offense coming to town, but every year without fail everything stays the same. The Wisconsin offense relies on big offensive linemen, talented running backs, and the hope that their quarterback doesn’t mess things up. Over the last eight matchups, this formula has come short eight times against Ohio State.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will once again have a tough disciplined group that will do its best to take away throwing lanes from Ohio State’s quarterback, limit the running game, and blitzing at times to try to force a mistake. If the Buckeyes can remain patient and establish the run game, the Badgers once again will not have the speed to keep up for four quarters.
Looking at the film, we will see how Wisconsin is aiming to attack. They will try to get an early lead and sit on the ball in hopes the defense can hold on. Wisconsin has been doing this for a long time, and their philosophies are no different this year.
The Wisconsin offense aligns in both spread looks and I-formation looks depending on series, situations, and part of the field. As a team, they utilize their tight ends in a variety of ways, lining them up both in-line and split-out, giving their offense a lot of versatility from a formation stand point.
Base Personnel Packages and Formation
Wisconsin uses their two tight ends quite a bit, especially on early downs and in the red zone. The Badgers have multiple 12-personnel packages that utilizes the tight ends in-line and split-out. In the first picture, we can see how they line up with one at the end of the line and one lined up staggered in a wing alignment. This is one of their most used formational looks, and this set is one Ohio State has seen already from when they played Notre Dame.
The next look shows Wisconsin in their 11-personnel. The tight end is lined up as an H-Back. This gives them a lot of flexibility in the run game. They can motion him to change the strength of the formation, they can run split-actions having him block across the formation, and they can use him in passing game both as an extra blocker or receiver. This formation is the least predictable from a play call standpoint as well.
Conceptually, Wisconsin has a very multiple run game, and they love to get their linemen moving as pullers. With a back like Braelon Allen, they’re able to keep it simple and let the ballcarrier make plays. The Badgers are one of the few teams that runs both zone and gap schemes regularly, but have shifted to running mainly zone concepts. They mix in inside zone, outside zone, and wide zone, giving them a mix that they can run from multiple running back alignments. Their more involved runs that get linemen pulling are a staple and this makes them dangerous in all areas if teams don’t read their keys.
The first play we’re going to look at is the Wisconsin variation of the GT-Counter. A counter-run play involves two linemen pulling across the formation. In Wisconsin’s case, the backside tackle and backside guard pull across the formation. The guard is responsible for kicking out the EDGE defender, and the tackle leads through taking the first defender he sees.
Defending this play takes disciplined football, with the defensive end taking on the block to take away the run lane and the linebacker taking on the pulling tackle. Ohio State was effective in taking on pulling blockers against Notre Dame, so they should be well prepared.
A Trap run is another play that gets the linemen moving around. The play side guard takes a trap step opening to run straight down the line to kick out the backside defenders inside out. In this play, Wisconsin’s OL blocks Washington State’s front six well, and the trap block is made unimportant. In this concept, the running back takes the ball opposite the direction he is supposed to run to give time to set up the blocks.
This play hits quicker than counter and is harder to identify. This makes it a dangerous weapon when it catches the defense off guard, as we can see here.
Wisconsin hasn’t had a dynamic passing game since Russell Wilson was under the helm for the Badgers. Whether it was Scott Tolzien, Jack Coan, or the now starting quarterback Graham Mertz, there hasn’t been a lot to get excited about for the Badgers. This year Mertz has been more efficient, with six touchdowns to two picks and a 71 percent completion percentage. The use of the tight ends has created some easy throws for Mertz, and the play-action pass has given Mertz some clean windows early in the season.
This passing attack is by no means dynamic, but when it’s working they can get the job done. One of the most interesting wrinkles in Wisconsin’s passing attack that’s helped Mertz is their max-protection looks. In this set, Wisconsin is able to attack downfield by using the tight end and running back as extra pass blockers. After the blockers chip and allow Mertz to get deep in his drop, they release as check downs. Downfield, the receivers push vertical and Mertz throws a nice ball down field. This will challenge the corners, especially when Knowles decides to gamble.
Tight End Involvement
The most successful aspect of Wisconsin’s passing game is the use of their tight ends. Clay Cundiff (No. 85) is the tight end to the rips side, and he is their second leading receiver. They find creative ways to get him involved and they try to get him touches because he is one of their more explosive weapons. In the play below, Wisconsin runs the tight end on a corner, and Mertz places the ball well for a touchdown. This was the first of two touchdowns for the Wisconsin tight end.
Jim Leonhard has been the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin since 2017. The two things Leonhard’s defenses have brought to the table are well-coached secondaries and aggressive fronts. These two things go hand-in-hand, but C.J. Stroud’s success against the blitz might change that plan. When Wisconsin isn’t blitzing, their defense plays a variety of coverages and their pre-snap movement can create confusion for quarterbacks to identify coverage looks. Their 3-4 defense is versatile and able to match up against a lot of different looks teams throw at them.
Base Defensive Looks
In the picture below, Washington State is in 11-personnel and motioned to an empty formation. This is something Ohio State does quite often, so below gives us a good look of how Wisconsin shifts when this happens. The safety steps out on to the receiver and the corner bounces out to take the running back. This is a one-high look, and Wisconsin is in Cover-3, which the motion helps determine. After the motion, Wisconsin is left with one safety in the deep middle of the field.
In the next picture we get to see how Wisconsin aligns when they are in short yardage situations. Washington chooses to spread the defense out. We can see the four linebackers taking the different gaps across the line of scrimmage and how the 3-down defensive linemen line up. The interesting aspect here is even in an obvious run situation, Wisconsin doesn’t switch any of their personnel to account for the run.
Coverage wise, the Badgers mix in Cover-1, Cover-3, Cover-4, and other 2-high looks. This is a varied defense, and the game plan this week might be similar to Notre Dame’s. The Buckeyes will have to be patient and take what is given. If they can do that enough, Wisconsin will either make a mistake or get impatient enough to bring pressure to make something happen.
In the play below, Wisconsin brings four rushers, dropping seven defenders, and has the downfield throws well covered. Washington State’s quarterback checks the ball down to the running back. Wisconsin misses a tackle and the defenders are so far down field the running back has a clear path to the end zone. This is what patience can lead to against Wisconsin.
Wisconsin always ranks near the top of the country when it comes to run defense statistics. Washington State, who isn’t known as a running juggernaut, was able to gain nice yardage using their inside zone concept. The one issue with the 3-4 based defense that Wisconsin runs is getting the linebackers downhill in the run game. Having an additional player off the line creates more opportunities for blockers to create running lanes. As we can see, the three down linemen get taken care of with ease, and this puts the linebackers in a mess, allowing the running back to rip off a big gain.
Ohio State is well-prepared for this matchup, and playing Notre Dame Week 1 gives the Buckeyes experience taking on a team with a smilier identity identity. Wisconsin is built similarly to Notre Dame, and they both like to get their linemen moving as well as get their tight ends involved in the passing game.
For the Buckeyes on defense, the way Lathan Ransom, the linebackers, and the defensive line played in Week 1 should give Jim Knowles a lot of confidence in this matchup. The Buckeyes have the personnel and talent to neutralize the two most dynamic parts of Wisconsin’s offense.
The Buckeyes offense will once again need to establish and rely on the run game to open up the pass. The Badgers also do not have the talent in the secondary to keep up with the Buckeyes. If the Badgers don’t win the early downs allowing them to sit on the sticks, Stroud and the offense will be able to attack comfortably all night.
For the Buckeyes, this game is an opportunity to put it all together. The first three weeks have been about growth, and the Buckeyes showed against Toledo that the offense is in full go and the defense is built different this year. Now it’s time for the Buckeyes to make a statement against a well-coached Wisconsin team.