When a football game is described as a battle in the trenches, usually it refers to ground and pound football that is won and lost based on which team’s line can get the stronger push up front. When Wisconsin (0-1 Big Ten, 3-2 overall) takes on Nebraska (0-1, 2-3) this weekend, it won’t be a traditional trench war, but the game will hinge on the performances of both team’s big men on the line of scrimmage.
The Badgers’ offense is a little more traditional than Nebraska’s, but it has gotten away from the run-heavy game plans that the school has been known for. Part of the issue has been inconsistency on the offensive line.
UW has rotated a handful of guys at both right guard and right tackle, and even the stalwarts at left tackle and center have not played as well as expected. Redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave has faced a lot of pressure as a result, and the running backs have not been able to break loose.
“It’s frustrating,” redshirt freshman left guard Michael Dieter said. “You definitely take it to heart as an O-lineman. You want to be able to be the O-line that springs big plays all the time, but you can’t really dwell on it.”
Things don’t get any easier for this Wisconsin offensive line as they head to Nebraska, which boasts one of the stoutest defensive lines in the Big Ten. They have a number of different tackles and ends that rotate around and generate a lot of pressure.
“They’ve got some good down lineman and some good ‘backers, but I think we’ve got a pretty good game plan against that,” redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Marz said. “We’ve got to bring our A-game, and it’s obviously going to be a loud environment, so we look forward to it.”
Communication is going to be vital to that game plan, as the Cornhuskers will try to confuse them and force mistakes by bringing stunts and twists to attack the inexperience of some of the Badger starters. It’s something that takes time to develop on the offensive line, but it is improving from week to week.
“We’re definitely getting there,” Dieter said. “I don’t think we’re there completely, but we’ve gotten a lot of good reps with each other, and I think we’re definitely close. We’re a lot better than where we were, but I don’t think we’re to where we could be.”
Nebraska won’t be the only team bringing the pressure to confuse the opponent’s offensive line. Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is game planning ways to get to Nebraska redshirt junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., a mobile quarterback who extends plays with his legs.
“There is a lot of pattern reads for the quarterback,” Aranda explained. “A lot of times, the play is broken down prior to that read taking place, and the quarterback is creating on his own, which I think is going to be frustrating for us in trying to be able to clean up a quarterback running around, receivers running around.”
The Cornhuskers’ offense moves Armstrong outside the pocket by design with rollouts, bootlegs and option plays. Keeping him under wraps falls on the defensive line and the linebackers on the line of scrimmage to keep him in front of them and prevent him from escaping.
“We’ve been steady preaching on keeping your pass-rush lanes and containing the quarterback,” redshirt junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said. “That’s really one big thing that is going to be key to winning this ball game.”
Armstrong’s mobility does a lot to mask any offensive line issues Nebraska might have, as the blockers don’t need to hold their blocks long if their quarterback is getting farther away from them, and it can tire defenses out quickly.
“I think we can prepare for it,” Aranda said. “What creates some nervous energy in me about this week is that we’re seeing so much from Nebraska that some of the younger players don’t have that experience to pull from.”
Both the Badgers’ offense and defense are relying on inexperience up front. Last week, UW started three redshirt freshmen on the offensive line, and the front seven started two true freshmen and a second year player.
Many of these young players haven’t been exposed to these important battles in the trenches, but they’re going to need to hunker down and remain consistent if their team wants to get their first conference win of the season on Saturday. Winning the war starts up front, even if that war is a little different than the Badgers are used to seeing.