Battling Wisconsin’s Big Boys
Can the Husker Defensive Front Hold Up?
Wisconsin has an excellent offense. They lead the Big Ten in total offense and scoring offense. Watching them, it is easy to notice that they have two great running backs - Montee Ball and James White. Their highly-regarded transfer quarterback, Russell Wilson, has been every bit as good as advertised. Wide receiver Nick Toon will play on Sunday. But, those players are not the engine of the Badger offense. The Wisconsin offensive line is really paving the way. This collection of linemen and tight ends is impressive enough to make the truest of Husker fans envious. So, how can the Blackshirt defense combat the Wisconsin big boys? It will require a combination of speed, depth, effort and scheme.
On Monday, Carl Pelini said that the Wisconsin offensive line is the best he's faced during his time at Nebraska. That's saying something. It's a clear indicator of the task in front of Pelini and his charges and lets you know that it will take a truly special effort for them to carry the day for NU.
Size Matters, So Play Fast
What makes the Wisconsin line so great? For starters, they are enormous. Senior right tackle Josh Oglesby is 6'7'', 330 pounds. Right guard Kevin Zeitler is 6'4'', 315 pounds. On the left side, the Badgers go 330 and 320 at those spots. When you consider that the Husker defensive line only has one contributor - Thad Randle - tipping the scales at 300 pounds you come to the harsh realization that the Husker defensive line is giving up about 30 pounds per man to the Wisconsin front. If Saturday's game becomes a matter of brute force, the Huskers will be hard pressed to win.
Nebraska's advantage is in speed. Jared Crick weighs 285 pounds. When you hear that number, the word "fast" doesn't exactly spring to mind. But, that is the case for the Husker senior - he's incredibly quick. In the pre-season, Pelini said that Crick's speed out of his stance - his ability to get his hands on defenders before they could engage him - was his greatest advantage. The same is true for the Husker defensive ends. The speed with which they come off the ball, engaged the lineman in front of them and dictate the course of the play will be essential.
The Husker linebackers must also rely on speed. Wisconsin's guards are great at pulling to lead their sweep plays. The NU linebackers must recognize when the guard in front of them is pulling and run right with him. From there, they have to knife in and make that play with quickness. If Will Compton or Lavonte David takes on one of those guards head on, they will be swallowed up.
This is not to say that Nebraska is somehow going to back down from a fight and play with pillow-soft fineness. It means they must play a very fast and physical style of ball. If they are explosive, they can create negative plays.
Fresh Bodies Create Great Effort
Nebraska has also been quietly developing good depth where it matters most - along the line of scrimmage. This season, backup defensive tackles Terrance Moore, Chase Rome and Thad Randle have all seen meaningful minutes while subbing for Crick and Baker Steinkuhler. Backup ends Eric Martin and Joseph Carter have also played some behind starters Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah. This is a very big deal.
Nebraska must use their ability to keep their big people fresh. That way, whomever is on the field can be giving maximum effort at all times. Don't expect that the repetitions will be handed out equally. There is a drop off from starters to backups. But if players like Moore and Martin can give front line players like Crick and Meredith some much-needed rest, it will allow for the Huskers to play with great energy and effort later in the game.
Slow Them Down By Making Them Think
Scheme will also play a part in trying to stymie the powerful Badger line. Expect the Husker defense to try and slow the Wisconsin hogs down by making them think. If Nebraska stays in their base 4-man front the entire game, the Badger linemen will be familiar and prepared. Knowing who to hit will allow them to come off the ball aggressively. So, the Huskers may need to change things up.
The can play their standard 4-man front. They can also switch to a 5-man front, with a nose guard over the center, two tackles lined up in the gaps between the guards an tackles and two stand-up ends. Both Meredith and Martin have shown the ability to play this stand up end/linebacker role.
You may also very well see Carl Pelini sell out with his blitzes, and trust Dennard and company to play the Wisconsin receivers on their own. Linebackers standing in the gaps can give any offensive line pause.
By varying the formations, Nebraska can make the Badger linemen hesitate on their assignments. You have to know who to block before you can go do it. Even a moment of indecision can lead to either a blown assignment or a moment for a fast Husker defender to press their advantage.
Make no mistake, the Wisconsin offensive line is great. The Husker defensive front will need to sell out to combat the Badger's big people. This requires fresh, fast bodies running a variety of schemes to keep Wisconsin guessing and not allowing them to come off the ball as aggressively as they have through the first four games of the year.