I didn’t need to re-watch the University of Wisconsin’s win over LSU on Saturday to know that the Badgers’ offensive line has taken major strides since last season. It was obvious seeing the game live that Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale rarely needed to dance before the line of scrimmage and Bart Houston had time in the pocket that Joel Stave would have only dreamed of last year.
The performance up front wasn’t anywhere near perfect. All six players who played on the offensive line were guilty of the odd mistake or missed block. But the overall physicality they showed in this game was something that was missing in 2015. The Badgers man-handled a very talented LSU front seven at times and consistently won the battle at the line of scrimmage.
It seemed to become an even bigger problem for the Tigers in the second half. Let’s take a look at UW’s first drive of the third quarter, which led to the only touchdown the Badgers scored all day. These are back-to-back plays in which every UW lineman wins their individual battle, and some dominate it.
UW unofficially had 13 plays against LSU in which a runner gained three or more yards before contact. The Badgers had only one game in 2015 against a major conference opponent (Minnesota) in which they produced more such plays. In last year’s season opener against Alabama, only one run went for three-plus yards before contact.
I’m not sure how many times the Badgers had back-to-back plays last season in which their running back wasn’t touched for the first five yards (like in the videos above), but it couldn’t have been that many.
Consider the level of competition in this game, too. National analysts can say what they want about how bad LSU is after losing to UW last week, but this Tigers defense would have been one of the best the Badgers played last season.
The Badgers' offensive line was also much better in pass protection. Look how much time Houston has to find Fumagalli downfield here.
I know UW kept extra men to protect on that play, but that didn’t always help last season.
It did make things easier on the group considering the frequency in which LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda only brought four men after the passer. I’m not sure why Aranda felt that was the best approach for this game, but he rarely brought more than four on third downs.
That doesn’t mean he didn’t try to confuse the Badgers, though. Even when only facing four pass rushers, UW did a nice job of recognizing who those four players were and where they’d be coming from.
The key on that play was left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who helped Kapoi out inside before recognizing a stunt and seamlessly switching onto Tigers defensive tackle Davon Godchaux.
As good as the Badgers’ defense was on Saturday, the play of the offensive line stands out and was arguably just as encouraging.
Let’s take a look at what else we noticed when re-watching the film from UW’s victory over LSU:
— Three returning players in the front seven — T.J. Watt, Alec James and Ryan Connelly — played much bigger roles Saturday than they did a year ago. While all three were impressive, I thought Watt was the best.
I talked about Watt on my podcast early this fall and urged fans to not place unrealistic expectations on Watt. His last name alone can get Badgers fans ramped up, but he was someone only a year removed from playing tight end and didn’t play significant snaps until very late in the 2015 season.
Well, UW fans, I’m now allowing you to get excited.
Watt’s role for the majority of last season was to play as a down lineman in passing situations. This may have led some to believe he was a pass-rushing specialist, but Watt proved that wasn’t the case against LSU. In fact, his biggest strength may be what he can do against the run.
Watt starts on the right side of UW’s defense in the first clip below and he’s on the left side in the second and third videos.
It was difficult to pick just three of Watt’s plays against the run. And, hey, his pass rushing still isn’t too shabby, either.
— Initially after the game, I thought the secondary’s success had more to do with LSU quarterback Brandon Harris than anything. While that still may be true, I realized when re-watching just how big-time the Badgers’ defensive backs were down the stretch.
Let’s go back to these two consecutive plays from early in the fourth quarter. The Tigers try to capitalize on the height advantage of Malachi Dupre’s 6-foot-4 frame. Derrick Tindal (5-11) and Sojourn Shelton (5-9) do a fantastic job of killing a drive that could have turned into more points for LSU.
Speaking of game-altering plays from defensive backs, I also have to throw in this Leo Musso tackle from LSU’s final drive.
If Musso doesn’t make this open-field tackle on Leonard Fournette, the star running back probably plows his way into more manageable field-goal range. Maybe the Tigers don’t feel the need to throw at that point, D’Cota Dixon doesn’t get his interception and the Badgers end up coming home with a crushing 1-point loss.
Musso, of course, also forced a huge fumble for UW earlier in the game. Musso was seen by many as the weakest link among the three new starters in the secondary this season, but the fifth-year senior showed up in a big way against LSU.
— I won’t cover Houston’s play too much since I did an entire film room story on him last week and my opinion didn’t really change after watching him against LSU.
He’s probably going to frustrate me and Badgers fans at times this season. He has serious talent, but he’s got to eliminate his occasional head-scratching decision to force a throw into coverage.
Both interceptions against LSU fit that description, and it nearly cost UW a massive win over the fifth-ranked team in the country. He made up for it by completing all three of his pass attempts on the game-winning drive, though. There’s still hope for Houston to have a fantastic season if he cuts back on the big mistakes.