At first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s introductory press conference in January, he said his philosophy would be to continue running “a Wisconsin offense.” This implication is well known in Badger country as a powerful rushing attack behind a big, talented offensive line. Recently, the “Wisconsin offense” also means putting up a ton of points.
Elements of that tradition percolated through the Badgers’ 26-21 victory over Football Conference Subdivision opponent Northern Iowa Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium. After all, UW ran the ball 47 times against just 23 passing attempts.
Still, this is the first time Canada and the offensive staff have been able to direct an offense described all along as a mixture of the existing philosophy and the ideas of the incoming coaches.
Like the offense itself, the results Saturday chalked up to be a mixed bag.
The Badgers dominated time of possession (39:05 to 20:55) and displayed good balance in compiling 191 rushing yards and 219 passing yards.
They also stalled on each of the first two productive drives, leading to field goals instead of touchdowns, a result the Badgers largely avoided in 2010 and 2011 and a part of the game head coach Bret Bielema stresses.
Wisconsin also suffered a relative lack of big plays. The Badgers registered four 20-plus yard gains on offense, including a 53-yard fourth quarter touchdown pass from redshirt junior quarterback Danny O’Brien (19-23, 219 yards, two TDs) to redshirt junior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (six receptions, 84 yards, two TDs).
“There were some times when we did try to stretch it a little bit,” Bielema said. “Any time you can stretch the field vertically, it opens up the underneath game.”
The underneath game is nothing new, but the way Canada goes about it, utilizing a wide variety of formations and a good number of concepts from his days running the spread offense at Northern Illinois and Indiana, is different.
“One of the things I love about what [Canada] has brought to the offense is some of the quick passing and quick hits,” Bielema said.
“We have a lot of different formations and a lot of different personnel to try to keep the defense off balance, so everybody has to be locked in and everybody has to know what they’re doing so we can run all those plays,” junior running back James White (nine carries, 49 yards) added.
The Badgers used all of the traditional power formations and sprinkled in new wrinkles. Included in them was a power formation that split fullbacks Derek Watt (redshirt freshman) and junior Sherard Cadogan in front of the tailback. Also, at one point an empty shotgun set included both senior running back Montee Ball (32 carries 129 yards, TD, 31 rec. yards) and White and at another included redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Fredrick bunched with redshirt junior tight ends Brian Wozniak and Jacob Pederson.
“Any time you have [White] in there and [Ball] and they’re out wide and running around and motioning, it creates some matchup issues,” Bielema said.
The Badgers’ first touchdown, a 10-yard corner route to Abbrederis, came from the empty-backfield look. Ball motioned to the left and Northern Iowa took a timeout. Wisconsin ran the same motion when play resumed, but Canada had actually made changes to the route combination.
“Matt made some corrections down there on the … first touchdown pass,” Bielema said. “That was some good, quick thinking. Guys get excited because they see what’s going to happen and it obviously did.”
Still, the production was inconsistent. The offense could not sustain drives at times, including in the fourth quarter while nursing a five-point lead. Other times, the progress was slow.
“They didn’t shift as much sometimes when we would shift, so it was a little different,” White said. “We have to get in and watch the film because other teams may take that and use that.”
As much as the Badgers tried to use formation and personnel changes to combat the Panthers’ will to stop the run, UNI was largely successful in keeping UW’s stable of backs in the starting gates.
“We didn’t get the vertical push that we needed to get,” redshirt junior center Travis Frederick said. “There were a lot of things today that we were really close on, but obviously close isn’t where we need to be. We need to be right on those things.”
“They were putting a lot of people down in there,” Bielema added. “They did a lot of things on the perimeter to make sure we couldn’t get our outside run game going. If I was playing ourselves, I wouldn’t let us run the ball either. I’d put 12 in the box if they’d let us.”
It was by no means a dazzling offensive performance. However, it did provide a look at how Bielema and Canada will go about reconciling spread offense themes with the traditional Wisconsin meat-grinding. There were flashes, but in between there was also lethargy.