UW quarterback Joel Stave gets rid of the ball while absorbing a hit from Nebraska's Daimion Stafford in the fourth quarter Saturday.

M.P. KING — State Journal

It's no secret what strategy opposing defensive coordinators will be cooking up against the University of Wisconsin football team.

With a redshirt freshman quarterback in Joel Stave, an interim first-year offensive line coach in Bart Miller and three new starters on the line, the Badgers might as well put out a welcome mat when it comes to blitzes.

"If I was a D-coordinator, I'd blitz the heck out of us," Miller said.

If opposing defenses need any more incentive, UW has predictably struggled with blitzes, ranking 11th in the Big Ten Conference with 11 sacks allowed in five games.

The only team that has been worse is Illinois (16 sacks), which has been ravaged by injuries on its line going into Saturday's game against UW at Camp Randall Stadium.

"Until we can stop (the blitz), people are going to continue to test us," junior center Travis Frederick said.

It would be easy to point a finger at the offensive linemen as the main culprits, but the real answer is more complicated.

In last week's 30-27 loss to Nebraska, the Badgers gave up three sacks, one of which was attributed to the line.

"We're working through those things, but we are getting better and better," said Miller, who has been in charge of the line for three games after Mike Markuson was fired. "In terms of the O-line, the way we grade, we've gone from three sacks to one and one. We're trying to eliminate those week by week."

But the line certainly isn't exonerated of all blame. Most troubling to Miller were two hits on Stave after he released passes, hits that were the result of physical breakdowns.

"Obviously, the hits last week are completely unacceptable," Miller said. "That's almost worse (than a sack), the fact we let the guy we're charged with protecting get hit like that. That's what we need to improve on."

The worst hit was the one that knocked Stave out of the game in the fourth quarter. Left guard Ryan Groy initially had control of defensive tackle Baker Steinkuhler, who then tossed Groy aside and crashed into Stave as he completed a pass to Kenzel Doe. Two plays later, Stave left the game.

"It's horrible," Frederick said of a lineman's feelings when the quarterback gets drilled. "He's our little brother, the guy we're out to protect."

On two of the sacks, Stave appeared to hold the ball too long. Having made only two starts and played in 2½ games total, he is still learning to recognize blitzes and adjust the protection, switch the play or get rid of the ball quickly.

"There are certain things we can't do in the scheme that's provided," Frederick said. "That comes down to the quarterback seeing it and throwing it. I think he's done a good job. There have been a couple times where there have been protection breakdowns and that comes down to us."

Another issue is UW changed its pass protection schemes when Matt Canada took over as offensive coordinator this season, going to something called "half-line slide protection," which the linemen had not done before.

The upshot of that is different rules and responsibilities when it comes to determining where to send the protection and recognizing the pressures. That also should improve with time.

"As coaches, we demand quite a bit," Miller said. "Those guys are trying to sort out the best they can where they think pressure is coming from. Sometimes, the looks can change mid-flow or mid-play. That can create some difficulties at times."

It's run blitzes, too, not just pass blitzes that have caused problems. Nebraska had a cornerback blitz that resulted in a 5-yard loss by tailback James White. That helped stop a promising drive in Nebraska territory when the Badgers were leading 20-3 and looking for a knockout blow.

Miller didn't blame Stave for failing to see that blitz, saying it was well-designed.

"We saw it from the booth, but it's a lot easier to see it (there) than from eye level," Miller said. "That was kind of a coach's battle and they won that one. ... That wasn't really on the kids."

Still, it's the type of play Stave will do a better job of recognizing as he gains experience.

The best way to stop a defense from blitzing is to burn it for big plays. That's why Stave views blitzes as opportunities for the offense as much as anything.

"It opens up the field downfield, so long as I can hang in there long enough and make a move that I need to make," he said. "If we can get something open downfield, it's a chance to score or a chance to make a big play."