At this point, the University of Wisconsin football team’s struggles against spread offenses are pretty clear.
When the Badgers are spread out along the front, and opponents make it difficult to gang tackle, big plays tend to happen. Those chunk plays came early and often against Nebraska last week, in particular from quarterback Adrian Martinez and running back Dedrick Mills, but some fourth-down stops limited points for the Cornhuskers. In the end, that’s what matters — keeping opponents out of the end zone — but UW’s continued issues with spread teams are troubling.
UW’s final two games of the regular season are against spread teams, an injury-depleted Purdue and Minnesota, so it must figure out how to slow these teams down. Let’s take a step inside the film room to see what worked, and what didn’t work, against Nebraska.
Situation: Third-and-14 from the Wisconsin 40, early first quarter
Play: Zack Baun sacks Adrian Martinez for a loss of 3 yards
Breakdown: This play shows one of the occurrences in which the Badgers got themselves in a good third-down situation and got off the field.
A sack by Chris Orr the play prior created the third-and-long, so UW could be conservative and just rush three players. The keys to creating pressure in these situations is defeating blocks and stunts — the Badgers do both this play. Defensive ends Isaiahh Loudermilk (97) and Matt Henningsen (92) run a stunt in which Loudermilk crashes down to chip Henningsen’s blocker, which allows Henningsen to get the initial pressure and make Martinez (2) start to move.
Simultaneously, Zack Baun (56) is defeating left tackle Brenden Jaimes (76) around the edge. It’s a simple bend around the edge, but because Henningsen has made Martinez get off his spot, Baun is able to get home and bring Martinez down.
Situation: First-and-10 from the Nebraska 25, middle of second quarter
Play: Adrian Martinez pass intercepted by Jack Sanborn, Jack Sanborn returns for 11 yards
Breakdown: The design of this defense is to keep Martinez in the pocket. UW seemed fine with letting Martinez attempt to make plays from the pocket, and he connected on some deep throws without scrambling. However, this wasn’t one of them.
Watch how the Loudermilk and defensive end Garrett Rand (93) aren’t really rushing — their jobs appear to be restricting Martinez’s ability to roll either direction to extend the play. Now watch inside linebacker Chris Orr (54). His eyes never leave Martinez as he drifts toward the line, indicating that he’s responsible for stopping Martinez if he were to step up and try to run up the middle. This is often called “spying” a quarterback.
Orr jumps and deflects the pass, which Sanborn breaks on to create the turnover. This set up the Badgers’ third touchdown of the game and their lead never dipped below 10 after this play.
Situation: First-and-10 at Nebraska’s 25, late third quarter
Play: Dedrick Mills rushes for 21 yards
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Breakdown: This kind of run is a staple play for spread offenses with a mobile quarterback, and Nebraska abused UW with it Saturday.
(Excuse the extreme wide angle from the TV broadcast for this play).
Watch how Martinez and Mills (26) hold the mesh point for a split-second, making Rand — who was unblocked on the play — choose which player he’s going to pursue. Rand stays put, which Martinez reads and hands off. Mills is already running and he’s going to beat a flat-footed defensive lineman to the edge. Nebraska’s receivers run clearing routes, keeping defensive backs’ attention down the field as Mills runs by Rand and crosses the line of scrimmage. Nebraska’s left tackle and wing account for the play-side linebacker, Sanborn, and a defensive back to create a big lane.
UW safety Reggie Pearson makes first contact 15 yards down field. Mills rushed for more yards than any one player has against the Badgers all season, and it was plays like this that helped him rack up yards.
This play was one of many on which UW utilized a 3-3-5 nickel defense, taking outside linebacker Noah Burks off the field instead of a defensive linemen as they do in their traditional 2-4-5 nickel package. The personnel group had mixed results.
Situation: First-and-10 from the Nebraska 4, early fourth quarter
Play: Adrian Martinez rushes for 45 yards
Breakdown: Can you see why UW was committed to not letting Martinez get loose?
This play should look familiar because it’s the same concept that got Mills a big gain as well. Martinez reads Rand and gets around him. Once Martinez eludes Sanborn’s diving tackle attempt, he has open turf down the middle of the field and he takes advantage.
This play happens against UW’s normal 2-4-5 nickel defense, and the fake handoff to Mills got Baun to chase and get out of position. Nebraska center Cameron Jurgens (51) also puts a tremendous block on Orr, engaging and then running with him so Martinez can cut back and break the long gain.
Credit needs to be given to cornerback Caesar Williams (21) for fighting off a block and finally making the tackle deep down field.
Situation: Fourth-and-4 from the UW 17, early fourth quarter
Play: Adrian Martinez rushes for 2 yards
Breakdown: This was essentially the play of the game. After this drive gets stopped, the Badgers chew up clock with a run-heavy drive and make a field goal to put it away.
UW put five players on the line, including Sanborn standing in the A gap — the area between the center and the guard to either side. Four of them rush, and they try a stunt that Nebraska actually does a decent job picking up. However, the fifth man on the line, Baun, backs off and acts as a spy on Martinez.
The stunt inside doesn’t get pressure, but Martinez decides to run, and he does so right into Baun. I’m not sure why Martinez didn’t try some kind of move, but Baun smartly wraps up and then pulls Martinez down quickly — eliminating the chance for a missed tackle or penalty.
As effective as spying was, UW couldn't use one every play because of Mills' big gains on the ground and how Martinez made good throws down the field as well.