The University of Wisconsin’s offensive line navigated a thin margin for error this season, where it took no more than a poor game here or there for words like “overrated” or “overhyped" to enter the discourse surrounding a collection of five returning starters and three All-Americans. Such is the life of a unit with perhaps more talent than any in the country, and one that graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in August.
It can feel like eons ago that the Badgers’ line underwent a trying transition in 2015, mostly piecing together inconsistent freshmen with underwhelming veterans throughout Paul Chryst’s first months as head coach.
Guards Michael Deiter and Beau Benzschawel were there for the entire ride, establishing themselves as staples of that 2015 group before failing to miss a start through this year, when four of five starters — including themselves — could now potentially see an NFL field next season.
“(Deiter and I) were just talking about the other day, the practices we had at some of our first bowl games, just how terrible we were,” Benzschawel said. "Me especially. Any practice, pretty much, I’d end up on my legs one way or another … trying to block people, getting there and just getting blown up."
The pair will play their final game at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when the Badgers host rival Minnesota — the program-record 53rd start for Deiter and 48th consecutive start for Benzschawel.
While both earned an All-American honor last season, offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said this week that the two are currently enjoying the best football of their careers.
“Certain things that you might have used to be able to get away with against them, you won’t be able to get away with it at all now,” UW inside linebacker Chris Orr said. "If you were shooting the gap and they were hanging on a double-team too long — you’re not getting through with that anymore. They’re going to hang and then come back and hit you in your chin."
Getting to this point wasn’t exactly a straight line for either.
Benzschawel began his career at right tackle, where he struggled at times in pass protection as a redshirt freshman in 2015. It wasn’t until UW’s regular-season finale at Minnesota that Rudolph switched him to right guard, a change that instantly showed a new level of potential for the Grafton native.
“There were so many things where he was right at home (after moving to guard), and you were like, ‘Woah,’” Rudolph said. "It wasn’t like, boy, that’s pretty good and we can get better at this. It was like, that’s exactly the way I’d like to see that done. … It fit him a little better. He’s grown every year with it. He’s gotten better with it. He’s cleaned up things that he needed to improve on."
Perhaps more polished than Benzschawel as a redshirt freshman, Deiter’s UW career quickly became defined by his versatility.
He moved from left guard to center after Dan Voltz suffered a season-ending injury in 2015. He split his time between those two positions in 2016 before making the jump out to left tackle last year to fill a spot short on depth.
Deiter opted to return to Madison in 2018 rather than enter the NFL Draft early, and he’s now back at left guard — a much more natural position for him than tackle — to improve his stock among pro scouts.
"I think he’s definitely rolled with the punches as far as the different roles that he’s been through,” Benzschawel said of Deiter. “He just did a lot of growing up and maturing, and probably took on more of that leadership role."
Deiter’s run of 52 consecutive starts — 22 at left guard, 16 at center and 14 at left tackle — marks the longest current streak by an offensive lineman in the FBS, while Benzschawel could end his career sixth in UW history with 49 starts.
After Saturday, Deiter and Benzschawel will be the only teammates in Badgers history to make more than 100 combined consecutive starts.
"The amount of reps that I’ve seen Deiter and Beau take is astronomical,” UW junior left tackle Jon Dietzen said. "Those guys just work their butts off, and every time they do a rep, they’re doing it to get better, so all those reps are meaning something. I think that’s one of the biggest things that they’ve done, is they’ve turned into those guys that don’t take the little things for granted."
This season likely hasn’t been the going-away party that Deiter and Benzschawel necessarily hoped for.
The Badgers held aspirations of making a run at the College Football Playoff, a dream squashed long ago as they enter Saturday’s game unranked and with a 7-4 overall record.
UW’s line perhaps hasn’t lived up to expectations either, if only because they were so high to begin with. The unit arguably fell below its level during losses to BYU and Penn State in particular and have been penalized at a high rate — most notably by committing eight false-start penalties over the past two weeks.
“We just can’t have them,” Rudolph said. "It doesn’t matter if a team’s shifting in short yardage. You’ve got to hold your water. We’ve had some different signal callers, and it doesn’t matter. It’s all on the snap, you know what I mean? None of those things should be an issue for you."
That doesn’t mean the offensive line hasn’t still been a strength of this Badgers team. Despite a bit of inconsistencies, the group’s one of 10 semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the top offensive line in college football.
Deiter and Benzschawel played key roles in paving the way for a rushing offense that ranks fifth in the country at 277.4 yards per game. Running back Jonathan Taylor’s firmly in the race to be a Heisman finalist, as his 1,869 rushing yards through 11 games are 348 more than any other FBS player.
Considering where this line came from when Deiter and Benzschawel were redshirt freshmen, the heights it reached over the past two seasons stand as no small feat.
"It definitely wasn’t easy,” Deiter said. ”But I think it’s cool to look back and just kind of acknowledge all the stuff that went into it, and where you were and what people said about you way back when. I think it’s cool to be on both ends of it. You were at an end where people said, ‘Oh, your line sucks,’ and all that stuff, and then three years later you were on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"We’ve had a lot of guys who have had to work together for a long time to be considered good. There were definitely some growing pains with what we went through, but we’ve definitely come a long way and it’s something to be proud of for all of us.”