In the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers’ 37-21 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers, the Badger offense looked like it finally started to modernize.
From the opening drive, Wisconsin’s offensive play calling was more aggressive than usual. Even though the Badgers relied predominantly on Jonathan Taylor, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph employed spread formations more than Wisconsin’s traditional under center packages. This meant the Cornhuskers couldn’t stack the box against Taylor because the Badgers had three receivers on the field who burned the Cornhuskers early for quick completions.
Spread formations and quick passes early in the game forced the Cornhuskers to play with two high safeties on most plays. This meant the Badgers had better numerical matchups on most plays; the Badgers often had six down blockers against three defensive linemen and two linebackers in the box. If the offensive line and tight ends could win one-on-one matchups against their assignments, Jonathan Taylor would only have to make one man miss to break out for at least 10 yards. And it worked, even when an offensive lineman lost one of these matchups, Taylor always got at least a short gain.
The Badgers often motioned out of their original formation, which allowed Jack Coan to make simple reads because defensive motion can often indicate coverage. For example, if a receiver runs across the field and a cornerback follows him, it’s man coverage. If the corner doesn’t follow, it’s most likely zone. Coan recognized this on multiple occasions, allowing for easy receptions that kept the Cornhusker defense honest.
Wisconsin’s offensive success was also due to arguably the greatest determinant in whether Wisconsin’s offense will be average or great: their wide receivers. The Badgers have a notoriously strong run game, and it’s impossible to completely shut down Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin’s rushing attack. However, the Badgers often struggle to move the ball consistently against teams that stack the box against Wisconsin’s heavy packages.
This means establishing the pass early opens up Wisconsin’s rushing attack later in the game, which is extremely important. Against Nebraska, Jack Coan connected with Danny Davis and Quintez Cephus early for substantial gains, which forced the Cornhuskers to respect Wisconsin’s passing attack. This meant Nebraska’s linebackers and safeties couldn’t be as aggressive in their run defense. Nebraska’s linebackers even hesitated in their run-pass reads which opened up gaping holes for Taylor.
Rudolph also incorporated false pulls on quick passing plays which further confused the Cornhusker defense. A false pull is when offensive linemen pulls — which linebackers usually associate with run plays — but the quarterback instead hits a receiver on a quick slant or flat. And, because Coan was mostly accurate with his quick throws, Nebraska’s linebackers couldn’t fly up into the backfield, as if they did Davis or Cephus could be one-on-one with a safety.
Ultimately, Wisconsin’s offensive balance and efficiency covered a poor defensive performance. If the Badgers can maintain this balance and throw early and often, they will at least give themselves a chance against elite Big Ten teams like Minnesota or Ohio State.