As Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson scampered down the sideline for an 81-yard run, it became apparent quickly that the zone-read option was going to be an issue for the young Wisconsin Badgers defense last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Since converting to a 3-4 base defense in 2013, Wisconsin has been among the country’s best at stopping the run. But those defenses have had one significant Achilles heel — zone-read option quarterbacks and schemes.
After facing a Michigan offense that got whatever it wanted last weekend on the zone read, the Badgers have a short turnaround to develop a scheme to stop the zone read of the Illinois offense.
Illini quarterback A.J. Bush Jr. is one of the largest dual threats in college football — one inch shorter and 20 pounds lighter than the NFL Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton. Bush Jr. is essentially a 6’4, 225-pound running back, who also throws when the play calls for it.
“He is special,” said senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. “At times we have to account for two running backs in there.”
Two of the four games Bush Jr. has played so far this season have seen him run for 100 yards, and he is third on the team in rushing yards with 282, as well as three touchdowns.
No. 23 Wisconsin’s (2-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) coaches and players understand they must slow the zone read option when they host Illinois (1-2, 3-3) on Saturday.
“We’ve got to have a plan for it. You have to be sound in how you handle the quarterback,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “They have a dynamic quarterback that can run with the ball and it is a huge part of what they do.”
Michigan, led by their own dynamic quarterback, was able at times to get a young Badgers defense stuck inside and sucked into closing in on the ball carrier rather than maintaining the edges and gap integrity.
“We’ve got to coach it better and the players have got to execute what is called,” Leonhard said. “It is coming down to execution right now. It is not plays that we haven’t seen. It is not situations our guys have not been put into.”
The health of Wisconsin’s secondary may prove key to how effectively they can execute the coaching staff’s directions. Three safeties — D’Cota Dixon, Scott Nelson and Reggie Pearson — and one cornerback — Faion Hicks — were still listed as questionable to play on Thursday with leg injuries.
Leonhard said on Wednesday that Nelson and Dixon have not been really able to participate at all this week in practice. With Hicks and Pearson also not dressed for Wednesday’s practice, the Badger secondary may be forced for the second weekend in a row to rely on younger inexperienced players to step up and hold their own on Saturday afternoon while trying to contain Bush Jr.
“It is absolutely something you have got to shore up,” head coach Paul Chryst said of the zone read. “The one thing that you can count on, especially when teams have that as part of their offense, is when you have been susceptible to it, you will see it again.”
With a young secondary thrust into bigger roles once again come Saturday, coach Chryst noted that it comes down to each individual truly understanding and trusting the responsibility that is given to them.
“Every guy has to get to do their part, and then when the ball [is] declared you have got to rally to it,” Chryst said. “Part of doing your job is knowing and trusting that someone else is doing his part.”