The University of Wisconsin rushed for just 41 yards in the second half Saturday at Illinois without star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.
And with the chance that Taylor’s left leg injury prevents him from playing this week at Indiana, I certainly don’t blame Badgers fans for freaking out a bit heading into a game in which their team opened as a single-digit favorite for the first time this season.
While Garrett Groshek’s recent performances are certainly ones to be complimented, the running backs on UW’s roster after Taylor don’t have quite the vision, balance and acceleration to consistently produce runs such as this.
There was certainly more to the Badgers’ struggles Saturday than Taylor’s absence, though, and it’s easy to forget it took the Heisman candidate a few drives to get himself going in this game before the injury.
All teams stack up against the run when facing UW, but Illinois took that to a pretty extreme level. The Illini had nine or more players in the box 34 times — more than half of the Badgers’ plays.
It certainly made it more difficult to open up room for the backs, and when you don’t have a playmaker like Jonathan Taylor sensing cutback lanes, making a guy miss or breaking tackles, it becomes an even bigger challenge.
Of course, the Badgers brought these congested boxes upon themselves with an overload of tight formations and one-wide receiver sets. Illinois’ linebackers and safeties were often cheating forward at the snap, though, giving UW plenty of options to keep the defense honest.
When the Badgers did so, they were often successful.
They hit their tight ends on play-action passes a few times, but below are a couple plays in which Illinois had nine men around the box and Alex Hornibrook simply threw a simple quick slant to Quintez Cephus. Notice how the linebackers run towards the line of scrimmage at the snap, even with no play-action to draw them in.
This also leads me to something that a reader requested and I’ve been meaning to write about in this space for a while — the jet sweep. Saturday had the makings of a big jet sweep game, but the play hasn’t materialized as a major weapon for UW this year.
The Badgers typically run it in order to get to the edge quickly when teams are stacking the box against them. When perfected, it looks like the clip below (from last year’s Minnesota game), where the line leaves the strong-side defensive end and tackle unblocked because the motion wide receiver will still be able to zip past them regardless. Not needing to account for those two linemen allows more blockers to reach the second-and-third levels of the defense quickly.
That secondary player you see run up towards the line of scrimmage pre-snap is a cornerback, which Troy Fumagalli easily eliminates from the play. The key here is the Gophers’ safety on that strong side stayed put, allowing Eric Steffes time to get upfield and take him out.
Teams approach defending this in slightly different ways. Illinois aggressively took it away by running a safety down on the strong side before the snap. In these next two clips, watch the weak-side corner direct a safety to crash the line of scrimmage when Cephus goes in motion.
When teams do this, it opens up some other options for the Badgers. One on occasion they handed the ball off behind the weak-side guard while the defense was shifting towards the motion receiver, something they also did a couple times last year against Illinois with some minor success.
Clearing out a safety opened up plenty of room for Fumagalli to make this 24-yard catch on UW’s final touchdown drive. Here are two angles of the play, the second a replay from behind the quarterback so you can really see that safety crash and the rest of the defense anticipate a jet sweep.
It feels like UW could have dialed up more plays such as this off the jet sweep Saturday. This is one of my favorites from last year — sticking Fumagalli on the side the motion’s coming from and setting up a tight end screen.
The Michael Deiter touchdown aside, I thought Chryst’s play-calling was quite conservative Saturday, but he probably realized he didn’t need to be too adventurous. While the game was an ugly one, the Badgers were in control the entire second half. They built a 14-point lead, and that defense was never going to relinquish it.
But if Indiana sells out against the run like Illinois did last week, especially if Taylor’s unable to play, the Badgers may need to put the ball in Hornibrook’s hands more often and trust their pass-catchers to win one-on-one match-ups.
Here are a couple other notes from re-watching Saturday’s game:
— I may just start a segment in this column that points out the most interesting pressure of the week.
Saturday’s came on third-and-goal late in the first half, when the Badgers’ entire front seven blitzed before two dropped into coverage. The initial surge forced Illinois to attempt to account for everybody. If you watch the right guard here, he’s prepared to block Alec James before the defensive end drops back, and that preoccupation with James allows Garret Dooley to break through nearly untouched.
— I may possibly go more in-depth on this next week, but I think UW’s second-team guys at outside linebacker are starting to play really well. Andrew Van Ginkel’s 29 snaps against Illinois were only six less than Leon Jacobs, per Pro Football Focus, and he put together what was likely his best game of the season. Tyler Johnson also earned a season-high 16 snaps and came through with that sack-fumble in the second quarter.