Film room: Taking a closer look at the Badgers’ shortcomings in the run game against BYU
Saturday’s defensive performance wasn’t one we’ve become accustomed to when watching the University of Wisconsin. It certainly, at least, didn’t look like the unit that finished each of the last three seasons in the top five among FBS teams in rushing defense. The only time the Badgers have surrendered a higher yards per carry (6.82) in the last six-plus years came during the 59-0 debacle against Ohio State in 2014, the final game of the Gary Andersen era.
As anyone could see from the game’s early stages, the Cougars’ jet sweep action continually gave UW fits, and after watching the tape back, it’s still difficult to suss out exactly what the Badgers’ plan was to contain it.
The jet sweep’s a difficult play to defend. It often takes the defensive end completely out of the play, allowing the offense to send an extra lineman to the next level of an opposing defense. It’s also a great way to hit the edge quickly when a defense stacks the box against the run (a major reason why the Badgers have found success with the play in the past).
There seemed to be some inconsistencies with way UW approached it defensively, though. Watch Ryan Connelly on these back-to-back plays in the second quarter in which BYU ran a jet sweep to the weak side and ripped off big gains on both occasions.
Connelly’s the weak-side inside linebacker here — the side where a potential jet sweep is coming — and yet he almost acts as if that possibility isn’t there until it’s too late. Now, I can’t know what Connelly’s responsibilities are on these plays, but whether he’s doing what he’s been told or not, taking himself away from the path of the motioning wide receiver leaves UW susceptible to a big gain right away.
The Cougars can leave Kayden Lyles unblocked (although they don’t even do that in the second clip). Christian Bell’s setting the edge and forcing the ball carrier to cut inside, but the problem is there’s no one inside to make the tackle.
BYU can be formationally unconventional. If you go back and watch the second video above, you’ll see right tackle Austin Hoyt move across the formation to leave just one offensive lineman and a tight end to the right of the center. Even with an unbalanced line, however, the Cougars still have enough numbers to run the jet sweep that direction if the inside backer on that weak side simply isn’t a factor.
On plays when Connelly stayed at home, he was quick enough to track the play down.
The Cougars’ biggest gains Saturday, however, came when the motioning wide receiver simply served as a distraction.
Both of Squally Canada’s 40-plus yard runs weren’t necessarily the result of trickery or confusion.
On the first — UW’s first play without the injured Andrew Van Ginkel — Noah Burks gets flushed inside, T.J. Edwards overruns the gap and Madison Cone misses a tackle 10 yards downfield. On the second, Lyles is cleared out and Connelly appears to be drawn out of position.
The Badgers missed 10 tackles in all, per Pro Football Focus, and it felt like even more. There were plenty of errors you don’t typically see this defense commit at a high rate.
Those two 40-yard runs, the wide receiver pass and Alex Hornibrook’s interception essentially accounted for all 24 of BYU’s points. The margin for error can often be smaller than it seems in this game, and UW just simply wasn’t consistent enough Saturday.
— The injury to Van Ginkel certainly affected the Badgers’ defense, but the absence of tight end Zander Neuville may have had an even greater impact.
With Luke Benzschawel also out, more run-blocking responsibilities fell on Kyle Penniston and Jake Ferguson once Neuville left after just two plays. Check out Ferguson (motioning before the snap) in the first video below and Penniston (on the right side of the formation) in the second.
Penniston’s steadily improved as a blocker the past couple years, but he’s still susceptible to the occasional whiff like we saw in that second video. Jonathan Taylor amazingly still turns that into a 10-yard gain, but he obviously can’t make something like that happen too often.
I praised Ferguson’s debut against Western Kentucky in our first film room of the season, but this area of his game’s still a work in progress.
Sometimes the breakdowns were more subtle. Watch Ferguson, who starts on the left side of the formation, on the following play.
Ferguson doesn’t miss his block, but he let’s the contact come to him rather than having the confidence to try to drive the outside linebacker away from the play. He gets knocked back just enough to prevent Tyler Biadasz from pulling around him, and Biadasz could have accounted for the defender who ultimately makes the tackle.
It only takes one bad play in the running game like this to stall a drive. While it’s only first down here, it put the Badgers in an unfavorable second-and-11 situation, and two passes later they were punting from just outside field-goal range.
“There wasn’t a lot of over-the-top stuff done by BYU,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “They were pretty stable. They played with big personnel and played strong. We just weren’t consistent. When we hit runs, we didn’t hit them consistently enough, and they were going to make you work for everything.
“You’ve got to extend drives. You’ve got to keep those things going. One mistake can show up big.”
Fullback Alec Ingold did take some snaps at tight end Saturday, and that may be something UW could turn to more often if Neuville remains out. He’s questionable to play this week at Iowa, and getting him back could be huge for the Badgers against another physical defense.
— The offensive line didn’t play particularly well, either, and David Edwards may have been the most culpable.
Here are a few uncharacteristically rough plays in the running game for the right tackle Saturday, two of which show him ending up on the ground right after the snap.
He also got knocked down in pass pro during UW’s final offensive play before Rafael Gaglianone’s missed field goal.
Edwards hasn’t played at an All-American level yet this season. He’ll be a player to watch over the next few weeks to see if he can turn that around with conference play now upon us.