He knows the University of Wisconsin football team’s foundation is set, with an offensive line he says he loves and a junior running back in Jonathan Taylor who can produce yards and points using its base schemes. Building on that foundation each week and designing different plays from familiar formations is what can make the offense dangerous.
However, the No. 13 Badgers have seen it go both ways — when those weekly adjustments aren’t executed properly, losses like last week’s stunner at Illinois can occur.
Halfway through the regular season, UW’s offense is averaging 39.7 points per game, its highest average through seven games since 2013. Rudolph says he’s enjoyed working with his unit to add more to the game plan each week, making the Badgers (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten Conference) more diverse and difficult to defend.
“They embrace that. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I can only do this,’ or, ‘I can only do that.’ They’re really open to trying things. They know we’re going to try to work our tails off to put them in good position, position to succeed,” said Rudolph, who is in his fifth season as offensive coordinator.
The reputation as a power-run, line-up-and-hit-you team has been earned through the years and is applicable to this team as well — especially when the “Hippo” formation comes onto the field with seven offensive linemen and two tight ends.
Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia, has been the trigger man for a Buckeyes offense that averages 49.7 points and 526.7 yards per game.
But it’s wrong to say that’s all the Badgers are this season. Talent and depth at the receiver position, along with a rash of injuries at tight end, has quarterback Jack Coan operating the offense most frequently with three receivers on the field. Coan, in his second year as a starter, has been smart with the ball, save for a costly fourth-quarter interception against Illinois, and kept the passing attack efficient.
The mix of formations, motions and personnel groupings used is making defenses adjust on the fly, which often reveals opponents’ intentions on a play.
“It makes them communicate. The more you’ve got to communicate, the more chances there are of miscommunication,” junior running back Garrett Groshek said. “I think really the big thing is to try to have them show their hand, whether it’s a pressure or coverage or anything like that.”
Groshek’s usage is a good example of how UW is building a varied offense. Groshek has been seen lined up as a receiver to start a play, then moved back into the backfield. He’s been in a two-back backfield with Taylor, and started plays as a slot back. Rudolph said earlier this season he’s impressed by Groshek’s ability to wear many hats and get the job done, and he’s especially skilled as a pass protector in the backfield, which will be crucial against No. 3 Ohio State (7-0, 4-0) during Saturday’s game in Columbus, Ohio.
Movement, whether it be a player lining up in a different position than usual or pre-snap motion, puts stress on defenses.
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“Just being able to do that really helps us, helps Jack read the play a little bit better,” tight end Jake Ferguson said. “Defense has to move around and prepare the motions and shifts, so all of that makes it a lot more difficult.”
Ferguson was the beneficiary of a new wrinkle showed against Michigan State earlier this month.
In the past two games, a win over Michigan State and Saturday’s last-second loss to Illinois, Taylor has a long run of 22 yards and has posted his two of his three worst per-carry averages of the season.
On a fourth-and-2 play, UW lined up in an I-formation with two tight ends, a staple of the offense. Coan faked a handoff to Taylor as the tailback was running to the flat — it was the same look UW ran the first play of the game when Taylor caught a pass for 9 yards. Instead of running an in-cutting route as he did earlier, Ferguson ran up the seam and was wide open when Coan tossed him the ball.
Ferguson said the success of UW’s wrinkles are based off defenses’ respect of Taylor.
“I think it starts off with having the best back in the country. Every defense knows it, they’re going to have to defend him first,” he said. “Also, starting with the guys up front, the offensive line, that makes our run game really strong. I think we have a lot of weapons in our receiving corps and a lot of places the ball can go, so I think that makes it really difficult for defenses to defend us and makes them prepare a lot more.”
Injuries have limited some of what the Badgers would like to do in recent weeks.
Junior fullback Mason Stokke, a versatile player for the offense, has been out with a head injury. Senior guard Jason Erdmann was out against Illinois, which cause shuffling along the offensive line and took away chances to use the Hippo package. On Tuesday, Rudolph said Erdmann is “banged up,” but was hoping to have him back this weekend, and that Stokke has been able to do more in practice of late and the team is hopeful to have him back in the lineup as well.
“Yeah, Mase has been really good,” Rudolph said. “Mase sees the game really well … If we can get Mase back, that’d be great. He does a great job for us.”
UW came into the season with four new starters on the offensive line and a quarterback with just four starts to his name. But that didn’t stop Rudolph from pushing them to pick up new schemes quickly. Each week presents unique challenges to counter, but Rudolph has liked how his group prepares for them.
“Sometimes you’ve got plays that are kind of coming along and you get to the week and you say, ‘Ah, not ready yet.’ You get to the next week and you go, ‘OK, that looked better, let’s get that one going,’” he said.
“So sometimes we’ve been working on plays for a while that don’t always show up that week, but they might show up a couple weeks down the line. I really appreciate the way this group works together and embraces new things and tries to make them go.”