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Big Ten Championship Film Room: No. 7 Penn State vs No. 6 Wisconsin

Wisconsin's defense is really good. Let's try to find some matchups.

Wisconsin brings a great defense to this Saturday's Big Ten Championship game.  It's 3rd best in the nation per S&P+, and it's pretty easy to see why.  They all run to the ball, play angry, and play very, very fast.  They're a lot of fun to watch on tape.

Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox continued Wisconsin's 34 front first put in place a few years back under Gary Andersen and Dave Arranda.  Wilcox aims to stuff the run on early downs, put you in 3rd and long, and then bury you with overload blitzes.

It's devastating against traditional, pro-style teams.  Their front 7's proven better than everyone's OL + TE + FB.  Michigan and Sparty couldn't break 350 total yards.  LSU and Iowa struggled to make 250 yards.   If Penn State rolled into Indianapolis with last year's offense, we might not net 200.

But we don't have last year's offense, praise the Lord.  We have a modern, hip, cool-kids spread 'em out offense, and it's been cranking along at a 476ypg pace the last half of the season.  Let's see what might work - or at least, what we can expect from the Badgers.

Kill The Lights

First things first: Wisconsin doesn't suffer your silly pace of play, hurry-up no-huddle stuff.  The "34" with 2 corners and 2 safeties is their defense, and it's going to be their defense on 1st down, 2nd down, and most 3rd downs too.  It'll be their defense most anywhere between the 5-yard lines.  Snow, hurricane, or climate controlled 69 degrees, the defense is the defense.  (Pretty much; some exceptions noted, but you get the idea).

Second, DC Wilcox keeps the schemes pretty basic.  Sure, it looks funky to you and me, with two stand-up OLBs hopping around the line of scrimmage, and safeties creeping/dropping left vs. right.  But mostly, it's the same 11 dudes, running the same 1-gap base scheme on most down and distances.  Part of the reason it's so cool, though, is that those 11 dudes know what they're doing, all of the time.  And that's definitely true in Wisconsin's case.  They communicate well - corners with safeties, safeties with LBs, LBs with DL - they rarely screw up, and they play really, really fast.

In any event, that's enough praise for now.  The opposite side of the "basic/fast" coin is "predictable".  And for smart OCs, that means you can design the matchups you want out of standard formations, and expect that you'll get what you hoped for on Saturday evening.   Here are a few samples of what we're talking about.

Ohio State's in base 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE), split in a 2x2 formation.  Wisconsin counters with its 34 base front, and what looks like zone on the backend.  Note the 7 - 8 yard cushion the outside receivers get, and that every single DB head is looking in the OHST backfield.

Another "11" personnel set from OHST.  Another base/zone set from Wisconsin.  Let's move along.

Here's something different.  It's 3rd down, and Ohio State's in an empty backfield, 4x1 formation.  Wisconsin's swapped a nose tackle for an extra DB, and - most importantly to us - changed coverage.  They're going man at the top of the screen, and pattern-matching / zone-ing the strong side.

So there's your first advantage.  You can dictate what coverage you receive based on the formation you deploy.  That's great.  The unfortunate part is that now you have to get them blocked on 3rd and reasonable.  And 42-Watt + 94-Sheehy on the same side - usually the boundary - ain't no picnic.  They're both good, and use stunts.  To wit:

But you can get that coverage - man to the backside, man/zone to the front - with a 3x1 formation, while Wisconsin's in base defense rather than nickle.  Here's an example.  You'll see the press-man at the top of the screen, and everyone else backed off at the bottom half of the screen.  230-lb Noah Brown delivers the jam rather than absorbs it, and hooks up just past the sticks for a first down.

Minnesota got in on the action last week.  Here's 2nd and Goal on the Gopher's first drive of the game.  Minnesota rolls out "11" personnel, but this being Minnesota, they use them in traditional ways - the 1 RB is in the backfield, the 1 TE is where a TE is supposed to be, at the bottom of the screen, and the 3 WRs are spread to the top.  We're all in man coverage here.  And, as diagrammed, Minnesota uses the ol' Steve Spurrier corner route from the inside slot, running behind the two decoy-ish slants.  The Badgers have strong safety D'Cota Dixon as the inside corner, because we ain't substitutin'.

Mitch Leidner delivers a perfect ball to Drew Wolitarsky, but he drops it.  The Gophers kicked a FG instead.  The important thing for you and me, though, is to picture DeAndre Thompkins / Chris Godwin / DaeSean Hamilton as the inside slot receiver, and ask ourselves, "can he beat Wisconsin's strong safety D'Cota Dixon like Wolitarsky did?"  Because chances are that Wisconsin, as mentioned, isn't going to go nickle just because we have 3WRs on the field.  And, oh by the way, since we've run that same 3x1 formation 1000 times already this season - is there anything to be gained by the one-on-one with 6'6" Mike Gesicki matched up against 5'9" free safety Leo Musso?

There probably won't be much running room on Saturday for us.  But that's not to make you think Wisconsin is perfect, or that we shouldn't stay committed to being balanced.  Here's a happy gif, of reserve OLB Garrett Dooley subbed in for TJ Watt, with Dooley losing contain on Leidner (and boundary corner Derrick Tindal making a bad read).

Here's another fun one that might come in handy.  Minnesota gets to a 3x1 formation thru the ol' jet sweep action - but no one's in the flat to cover the motion man.  Three WRs won't prompt an extra DB.  First down, friends, is for stuffing the run in Badgerland (so we might want to pass on 1st down a bit more than usual).

Coolest gif of all.  BTN put a GoPro camera on the umpire.  Wisconsin's NT Olive Sagapolu gets rolled - but, in his defense, he's playing one-handed: dude has a cast/club on his right forearm.  ILB 43 Ryan Connelly reads the triangle and comes. down. hill.  into his gap.  Brother wastes exactly zero steps.  The other ILB 53 TJ Edwards gets picked off by giant stork / blocking machine #80 Wozniak.  Musso fills in a flash from his FS spot.

Woooooo!  Makes you want to grab a helmet and stick your face in there, doesn't it?

Hit The Lights

Wisconsin's a lot of fun to watch - well coached, tough, smart, very physical, and - contrary to the commonly accepted large, white, mid-western trope - very fast.  At least, they play awfully fast on defense.  Just ask LSU.

Our Lions will have their work cut out for them.  But it seems like there might be some predictable schemes/matchups that we could pop for a few big plays, whether it's a singled-up corner, a safety in coverage, or getting those ILBs to chase Saquon Barkley into the flat after running off the DBs.

Gonna be hard waiting until Saturday.