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Watching Film: The Refined Brutality of the Wisconsin Offense

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How the Wisconsin offensive scheme makes life easy on their quarterback.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 27 Pinstripe Bowl - Miami v Wisconsin Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Many believe that quarterback is the most important position in football. A great quarterback can be the wind in your team’s proverbial sails, while a poor quarterback is an anchor trying to drag you under.

Last week I took a closer look at the controlled aggression of the Wisconsin defense and how their four man pressures can give opponents fits. These pressures make the game especially difficult for the quarterback. The ability to get pressure AND still drop seven men into coverage can make for a very tough day throwing the football.

While Wisconsin’s defense makes life miserable for the QB, their offensive schemes do the complete opposite. The Badgers put an emphasis on the ground game, but add some intriguing schematic wrinkles to make life easy for their signal callers. By mixing a creative smash mouth run game with timely play action passing, the Wisconsin offense exhibits a sense of Refined Brutality.


Let’s play a quick game. Can you name three great Wisconsin running backs? You can likely name many more than three.

Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, Corey Clement, James White, and the list goes on. All these players had all-conference/all-American type college careers in Madison.

Now, besides one year of Russell Wilson, name a single great Wisconsin quarterback. That’s a much tougher question.

While Wisconsin has had many fine QBs, such as Jim Sorgi, Brooks Bollinger, Darrel Bevell, and Scott Tolzien, none of them were ever really the centerpiece of the offense. And yet Wisconsin has been able to consistently produce efficient offensive attacks.

In fact, the past two seasons the Badgers have had an average offensive efficiency ranking of 15th in the country according to the S&P+. If the quarterback is so important, how is Wisconsin able to produce such efficient offense? The major key to the Wisconsin attack is their run game. The Badgers have a smash mouth reputation, but they mix in creative schemes with this hard-nosed attitude to produce great results.

Creative Run Game

One of the bread and butter run plays for Wisconsin is the outside zone. On zone run schemes, the offensive line isn’t necessarily blocking a man but a “zone”. Often the “zone” is the gap next to them to the play side.

If the zone run is called to the left, I will block whoever comes in the gap to my left. Now, in reality it’s much more complex (you’d be surprised how many rules and techniques there are for something seemingly so simple), but that’s the basics of the scheme.

Inside Zone scheme is typically attacking the gap between the guard and tackle, or the “B” Gap. On this scheme the line is looking for vertical movement, often through double teams. On the outside zone, the line is looking for horizontal and vertical displacement. The back is tracking outside the tackle and will cut up if a vertical seam has been created. If not, the back will stay on his track. Wisconsin loves to add a wrinkle to this by including a FB leading the way for the halfback.

Outside Zone w Fullback Leading

Against Western Kentucky in game one of last year, on a first-and-10 from the Western Kentucky 48, Wisconsin comes out in 22 personnel (2 backs, 2 tight ends). They line up in a tight bunch formation with the bunch (two tight ends and one fullback) on the right side of the formation and a lone receiver on the left side.

Out of this formation Wisconsin likes to run a toss play to the Bunch side. This fact, coupled with the Badgers propensity to run the outside zone, causes the defense to overload the right side of the formation. In fact, Western Kentucky only has four defenders to the left of the center.

There is a safety in the deep middle of the field out of frame, but pre-snap Western Kentucky outnumbers Wisconsin four to three. The Badgers will change that post-snap. They will fake the toss, one of their favorites in this formation, and bring three blockers from the right side back to the left on a counter play. Wisconsin will change the math post-snap through the counter action and pulling three players. What was a one man deficit becomes a two-man advantage with the added bonus of getting the defense to flow the wrong way.

The left tackle and left guard double team the defensive lineman head up on the guard. The center will block the nose and the right tackle will seal the hole created by the pulling guard and block the down lineman that was head up on the guard. The right guard will the pull flat and kick out the stand-up end on the left of the formation. Their assignments are pictured below.

Offensive Line Assignments

The full back and tight end that are in the bunch off the line will both pull along with the right guard. If the guard gets a good kick out block, both players will pull inside his block. The first puller will have his eyes inside and end up picking up the inside linebacker trying to get back in the play. The second puller will basically take the first thing crossing his face, which ends up being the deep safety. Below the first puller will be following the black path and the second puller will be following the yellow path.

Fullback and Tight End pull paths

The following is the picture right after the snap. The QB will open just like he would on toss and even give a little toss fake. The back will take a step or two right and then come back to the left following his pullers. The guard (arrow) is on his track to the end man on the line of scrimmage (arrow) and the other two pullers are trailing behind him.

The guard does a great job and destroys the end man. The second puller gets through the hole with his eyes inside and picks up the retracing linebacker. The third puller (yellow arrow) continues on his path towards the safety.

The third puller blocks the safety and now the back is in the open field.

When you give a back as good as Jonathan Taylor that much room, the result is a fait accompli. Touchdown Badgers.

Wisconsin loves to run it at you and they get in personnel groupings that reflect this style. You will often see only one or two receivers in the game for the Badgers. They run the ball with the backs to almost lull you to sleep and then they break out another one of their favorites, the jet sweep.

Jet motion involves a player coming full speed across the formation and either receiving or faking a handoff immediately after the ball is snapped. Wisconsin loves to use this as a restraint play.

Restraint plays are plays that you call to keep a defense honest. What do you do if you are running the ball inside a ton and the defense starts to load the box between the tackles? You would call something that would hit outside to force the defense to stop cheating for the inside run. Wisconsin did exactly this to Michigan in their game last year.

Wisconsin had the ball first-and-10 at the Michigan 33-yard line. Wisconsin is in 21 (2 backs, 1TE) personnel with a receiver to either side. The Badgers have handed the ball to the running back on the previous three plays for 38 yards combined. They know Michigan loves to play aggressively, especially on the outside against the wide receivers. Wisconsin uses the jet sweep handed to one receiver with a crack (outside-in) block by the other receiver to take advantage of the Wolverine aggressiveness.

Pre-Snap

Pre-snap you can see that, if you include the safeties, Michigan basically has nine men in the box with their corners playing man on the wide receivers. When the receiver goes in motion the safety to the left of the formation will roll down to meet him taking over the responsibility of the corner to the top of the picture. The corner at the bottom is still playing man. Wisconsin anticipated this rotation and set up the perfect play call for the situation.

Jet Sweep Play Diagram

The receiver at the bottom will come from outside-in to crack block the safety rolling down. The corner covering that receiver will run inside with him as he is playing man coverage. Wisconsin will leave the defensive end to the left unblocked, much as if they would on the backside of a zone scheme. The fullback will bypass the end and go out to get the corner. The receiver in motion will receive the handoff and bow out a little to create separation between him and the unblocked end, all while following his lead blocker.

Post-Snap

Above, you can see the unblocked end squeezes down to compress the edge with the tackle blocking away from him. The ball has already been handed to the receiver and the safety rolling down is just starting to recognize the crack block. The fullback is on his track to the corner. The receiver has the ball ready to read the block of his fullback.

Crack Block gets just enough

The receiver blocking gets enough of the crack block to be effective. The corner is just now realizing what has happened. He will try to get back in the play, but it’s too late. The fullback has the angle and the receiver will go on to score untouched.

So now Wisconsin has hit you their base run game. And a counter to the base. And then a jet sweep. What if they combined all those elements into one play? Well that’s exactly what they did to poor Miami in the Pinstripe Bowl last season.

After intercepting a pass on Miami’s first offensive snap of the game, Wisconsin had the ball first-and-goal at the seven yard line.

Pre-Snap

Wisconsin comes out in 11 personnel ( 1back,1 TE) with two receivers and a wing tight end on the left and a single receiver on the right of the formation. The Badgers will fake the jet sweep to the receiver at the bottom of the screen.

The offensive line, tight end and running back will be running split zone to the left. In this split zone play, the offensive line will block the inside zone as described previously. The wing tight end will come back across the formation and kick out the backside end. The running back will aim for the left “B” gap (between left guard and left tackle) with the ability to cut the ball back if he sees fit.

O-Line and Wing TE Assignments

This scheme coupled with the jet action will prove to be quite effective. Wisconsin send the receiver in motion and you can see the defense react. The safety up top will fly to the motion. The other defensive backs will rotate to the motion as well. The linebacker to the boundary side will fly to the motion post-snap.

Effect of Jet Motion on the defense

Below, the safety (black arrow) will be taken out of the play by the jet sweep fake. The right tackle is in good position to block the linebacker to his side. The wing tight end is on track to kick out the end. The field linebacker (yellow arrow) is actually in decent position but he gets taken care of by the back, Jonathan Taylor.

The LB initially steps to his left toward the jet fake but sees the hand off and comes back to his right. Taylor does a great job of pressing the line of scrimmage and gets the linebacker to step up. Taylor then jump cuts to his right and hits the hole created by the blocks of his right tackle and tight end (black arrows).

The linebacker recognizes the cut, but it’s too late. Taylor runs through his attempt at an arm tackle for a TD.

Play-Action

Last season, Wisconsin ran the ball nearly twice as much as they passed the ball (571 attempts to 304 attempts respectively). As previously shown, Wisconsin often runs the ball with a wing tight end or full back involved as a lead blocker.

The number of rushing attempts coupled with the use of tight ends and fullbacks in the blocking schemes really lends itself to creating an effective play-action passing attack. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, last season poor play at QB cost the team some shots at big plays. We are going to look at two plays from last season that were beautifully designed but the quarterback, for one reason or another, was unable to make the play.

The first play was against Michigan. Wisconsin was trailing 24-7 in the fourth quarter and need to score on the drive to get themselves back into the game. They are facing a third-and-two from their own 23 yard line. The Badgers come out in 31 personnel (3 backs, 1 tight end) in a run heavy formation with the tight end on the right of the formation, a lone receiver on the left, and three backs in the backfield. Michigan is late to line up to the formation, but they have 10 men in the box to stop the run.

Pre-Snap

The Badgers will pull their left guard to sell the run even more. The backs will all stay in and block, while the tight end will come inside like he is executing his inside path on “Power”. The tight end will then try to get lost and run his route across the field into the space being vacated by the lone receiver running a deep crosser.

Play Diagram

The play is well designed and called at a great time. Unfortunately, it does not go as planned. Right after the snap, the play looks like it is going hit. Wisconsin gets exactly what they want. You can see how keyed in the defense is on the fake handoff. All eyes in the box are on Jonathan Taylor , and the tight end coming across has gone unnoticed. The receiver is being guarded man-to-man and working to get inside position.

Post-Snap: All eyes on Taylor

In the picture below, you can see the first mistake. The left tackle was blown back and has disengaged from the defensive tackle (black arrow). The center (61) tries to come over to help, but it’s too late. The defensive tackle now has an open lane to the quarterback.

We can also see the second mistake. While it’s easy to say behind the keyboard, the quarterback has both of his options (yellow arrows) available right now. The QB has to know that this ball must be out quickly. His read is likely the receiver down to the tight end. Off his fake, he can stick this ball into his receiver right now. If you don’t like that for some reason, find the tight end and if you feel rushed try to drop the ball into the open space.

The quarterback has enough time to hitch up and gather his feet. He could have hit his back step and delivered the ball to the wide receiver. Instead, he lingers on his first option a little too long before trying find the tight end. The tight end is running free into a lot of open space, but by then it was too late. He is hit trying to deliver the ball. The pass (black arrow) falls short of the target. The ball is intercepted and returned for a touchdown basically icing the game.

The next play we will look at had a successful result, but it could have been so much more. Wisconsin has the ball first-and-ten on their own 30 yard line. They come out in 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 tight end) with two receivers on the left of the formation and a tight end on the right. The fullback begins a shuffle motion to the right just before the ball is snapped. Western Kentucky is playing a one-high coverage, with the deep safety just out of frame in the middle of the field.

Pre-Snap

Initially to Western Kentucky, the play will look like the bread and butter outside zone with the fullback leading. Wisconsin will instead be running a pass concept they used quite a few times in the games I watched. It looks a little like the Air Raid Y-Cross play. It also has elements of shallow cross and curl-flat depending on where the quarterback is looking. See the Diagram below.

Play Diagram

Wisconsin snaps the ball and you can see the impact of the run fake. The linebackers all bite up for the run. The outside linebacker to the tight end side steps up to take on the fullback. The corner to the tight end side recognizes the play-action and begins to run with the tight end.

Based on the design, I would assume the quarterback will be going fullback to crosser to dig to tight end drag in his progression. However, when the QB comes off his fake, and looks for the crosser.

If the QB looked at the fullback, he would see him screaming wide open. The endzone view really shows this. The linebacker is stepping up to take on the fullback’s lead block like he has so many times. Except this time, the fullback avoids him and runs by. The corner is still chasing the tight end but he will cut underneath the deep crosser when he sees it. The deep safety (on the “W” logo) would be the only person with a chance to close on the fullback but he is occupied by the deep crosser. All the while, the quarterback doesn’t even look at the fullback.

The fullback is still wide open, but the quarterback has decided to work the deep crosser to the dig to the tight end. You can see the corner pass of the tight end to the linebacker and begin to cut under the deep crosser. A huge window will open up trailing the deep crosser behind the linebacker who has eyes on the tight end.

The QB hits the open receiver in the hole for a first down, but the play could have been so much more. Wisconsin ends the drive settling for a field goal when they probably should have had a touchdown on the first play.


Wisconsin is an extremely well coached team. While many programs have been quick to jump on the spread and hurry-up no-huddle bandwagon, the Badgers do what they do. They want to possess the football longer than you and run the football right at you.

Even so, Wisconsin is not a “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense. They are very creative with their run blocking schemes and this really puts the defense in a bind. Their design in play-action adds another layer of difficulty for opponents. With a great group of skill players returning and what I think will be improvement at the quarterback position, maybe Wisconsin will spread people out more. It wouldn’t surprise me. Because what Wisconsin’s coaching staff does well, above all, is put the players they have in positions to make plays.

I believe that the USF staff will do the same. The defense that has been so active in the spring and fall camp will face a tough test.

Easier said than done, but containing the Badger rushing attack will be one of the major keys to victory. Maintaining eye discipline on the play-action will be another. If the defense can do both of those and allow the game to be played on the Bulls’ terms (FAST), USF fans could be feeling pretty good August 30th around 10:30 PM.