Film room: Jumbo package helps Badgers’ offense combat stingy Iowa defense in huge win

September 26, 2018

If everyone knows what’s coming, you might as well own it.

The University of Wisconsin did just that by deploying a jumbo package in its 28-17 win at Iowa that featured linemen Jason Erdmann and Logan Bruss as blocking tight ends.

In last week’s film room following the BYU loss, we took a look at the importance of Zander Neuville, who was only healthy enough to play five snaps against the Hawkeyes. Tight ends Jake Ferguson and Kyle Penniston saw the field for less than half of the Badgers’ 42 snaps in the run game Saturday, per Pro Football Focus, and most came with either Erdmann or Bruss also on the field with them.

The Badgers didn’t break off any huge runs through this formation, but the ability of the extra linemen to seal off the edge of Iowa’s defense allowed space for Jonathan Taylor to pick up consistent yardage. He gains about 6 yards before contact on both plays below.

UW only ran directly behind that loaded-up side about five times, although Tyler Biadasz’s injury, which forced Erdmann to play center, likely factored into that final number.

The formation’s greatest purpose Saturday wasn’t actually served by the couple of decent gains it produced. It loudly proclaimed the Badgers’ commitment to a brute-force running game, which they in turn used to set up play action at opportune times. UW had ran the ball on 13 of its 17 snaps prior to the back-to-back plays below, the second of which came out of that jumbo package. Watch how heavily Iowa crashes in against the run.

Those type of plays will be there when you take the Badgers’ methodical approach to offense, and their jumbo formation helped manipulate Iowa’s defense into allowing them.

It also put UW’s wide receivers in one-on-one match-ups — battles they were winning with regularity. The Badgers could have taken more advantage of this Saturday and missed some prime opportunities to do so. In the play below, UW doesn’t even use play action, but the jumbo package forces Iowa to cheat towards the line of scrimmage anyway. Kendric Pryor breaks free after freezing the corner on a stop-and-go route. That move did allow the safety — who started only eight yards deep — to make up just enough ground, but this may have still been a touchdown if Hornibrook led Pryor a little more towards the sideline.

Pryor made an identical move that led to his 28-yard catch on UW’s go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Allow me a quick tangent on Hornibrook, who continues to take criticism from some fans even after completing 17-of-22 passes with no turnovers, including a perfect 5 for 5 on the game-winning, 88-yard touchdown drive.

His back-shoulder throw to Danny Davis on third-and-goal from the 12 was a big-time throw in a big moment, and even a completion like the one he made to Jake Ferguson just before A.J. Taylor’s touchdown isn’t as easy as it looks.

With pressure starting to close in on him, Hornibrook needs to wait for Ferguson to clear the linebacker who’s dropping into zone coverage in the middle of the field. There’s no room for him to step into the throw, and the tight coverage on Ferguson doesn’t allow much margin for error.

Hornibrook completed 9-of-10 passes in the second half for 121 yards and two touchdowns. The only incompletion was a drop by Ferguson, and he also hit Danny Davis on a 15-yard pass that got called back for holding. Those who are criticizing him for anything regarding this performance, just stop. Save it for another day.

Although the Badgers’ offensive performance did feel choppy and inconsistent, we should remember that Iowa entered this game with one of the nation’s best defenses through the first three weeks of the season. The end result of 415 yards and touchdowns on four of 11 drives certainly isn’t too shabby. It wasn’t pretty — and UW wasn’t necessarily trying to make it look that way — but the Badgers made the plays they needed to win, something they weren’t able to do last week.

— UW’s defensive performance should probably bring much more concern.

Although the Badgers held Iowa to 17 points, the Hawkeyes gained 404 yards on just 54 plays — a 7.48 yards per play average that marks the highest UW’s allowed since Alabama’s 7.61 in the 2015 opener. The Badgers’ offense held the ball for more than 35 minutes, including 10:29 of the fourth quarter, a contributor to Iowa’s low point total.

The Hawkeyes’ offensive line often won the battle up front, and, of course, connected on a number of sizable gains in the passing game.

Some of those long passing plays were a result of breakdowns in the secondary, but UW also failed to put much pressure on quarterback Nate Stanley throughout the night. There were far too many plays of this variety:

The Badgers didn’t blitz often Saturday, and part of that may stem from the fact that Iowa didn’t face many obvious passing downs. The Hawkeyes only had four third downs of more than 5 yards. They found enough success in the run game to avoid those situations and used play-action to their advantage, as shown in the two videos above.

Deron Harrell surprisingly earned the start at cornerback over Caesar Williams, and he did experience some issues in his first extended playing time. But some of the Hawkeyes’ long gains weren’t necessarily the secondary’s fault.

Take the play below, for example. The end result makes it look as if Faion Hicks got beat deep. Watch back from the beginning, however, and you’ll see UW in zone coverage with corners responsible for the flat. Hicks sprints deeper when he knows no one’s in his zone, and he nearly catches up to a wide-open T.J. Hockenson before the ball arrives. Andrew Van Ginkel, on one of only five snaps he played, does get some initial push and force Stanley out of the pocket, but in total Stanley uses about six seconds to get rid of the ball.

When a quarterback has that much time to throw, he’s bound to find an open man. You could argue Van Ginkel was held on this play, but this was just one of many examples where things broke down defensively for the Badgers, and there wasn’t just one position group to blame.

Give credit to the unit for coming up with three fourth-quarter stops, but there are certainly plenty of issues to correct. A full return from Van Ginkel after the bye week would at least serve as a good start towards turning things around after the last two games.

Here are a couple other tidbits after re-watching Saturday’s game:

— Outside of the five snaps in which Van Ginkel subbed in for Tyler Johnson, Johnson and Zack Baun played every snap on defense. Christian Bell did not see any after playing 40 snaps last week against BYU.

— Harrell mentioned during fall camp that he needed to improve in press coverage, and it looks like he’s still got work to do in that area.

— The Badgers missed six tackles against Iowa, per PFF, an improvement on last week’s 10. Safety Scott Nelson missed two, including a big one on the Hawkeyes’ first drive that sprung a 20-yard gain. The redshirt freshman’s had his moments in coverage but needs to clean up his tackling.

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