Cougars face a terrific running game -- and historical excellent -- at Wisconsin
When your opponent knows what you are going to do and you do it anyway, that’s power.
More than that: Your offense has an identity and a purpose.
The BYU football team will run headlong into just such a team on Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin. The sixth-ranked Badgers are one of the premier power football programs in the country and have been for more than 20 years.
They line up, they run their stuff and very few teams can stop them.
Wisconsin has made its program out of big, beefy German and Scandinavian home-grown offensive linemen along with a ridiculous amount of talent at running back.
It really started with Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne in the late 1990’s, followed by 1,000-yard rushers Corey Clement, P.J. Hill, John Clay, James White, Anthony Davis, Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball, along with this year’s model, Jonathan Taylor.
In 2010 the Badgers almost had THREE 1,000-yard rushers in a season with White (1,052), Clay (1,012) and Ball (996). One crazy night at the Big 10 Championship Game in 2012 against Nebraska, Wisconsin ran for 539 yards. In 2014, Gordon broke the NCAA single-game rushing record against those same Huskers with 408 yards — in just three quarters.
Since Dayne crashed onto the scene as a freshman in 1996, the Badgers have been remarkably consistent with their running attack. Only twice in the past 21 years has Wisconsin finished outside of the top 50 nationally in rushing yards per game. This season, the Badgers averaged 325.5 yards rushing in warm-up games against Western Kentucky and New Mexico, fifth best in the NCAA. Taylor leads the country in rushing through two games (398 yards, 8.5 yards per carry) and yards after contact (239).
BYU found out in last year’s 40-6 loss to the Badgers in Provo that you can’t just sell out to stop the run or you’ll get burned through the air: Alex Hornibrook went 18-of-19 for 256 yards and four touchdowns in that game.
Wisconsin’s identity is more than just its running game: Since the turn of the century, the Badgers have finished with a losing record only once and haven’t missed a bowl game since 2001.
How will BYU slow down Wisconsin on Saturday?
If enthusiasm counts, BYU sophomore defensive tackle Bracken El-Bakri could do it all by himself. The former walk-on turned starter is an entertaining interview, to say the least. He punctuates his answers with sound effects and his eagerness to get onto the field against the Badgers is infectious.
“Dude, what an opportunity,” El-Bakri said. “You get to go to Wisconsin, you get to play against one of the best running games in college football and you get to be the D-tackle going in there? What? Are you kidding me? That’s so exciting. That’s like getting to play against LeBron James or Michael Jordan. It’s like you can say, ‘I’m about to stuff this guy on live television! Wow!’
“That’s how I feel. I think the team is excited, too. Coach (Ilaisa) Tuiaki and Coach (Kalani) Sitake talked to us about seeing this as an opportunity to make history and change the world. You’re going to the Death Star. That’s where the Empire is. Guess what? Boom! Luke Skywalker, baby, bop, bop!”
The Cougars won’t just use enthusiasm to slow down the Badgers. El-Bakri said practice has been technical as well, learning to take on double and triple teams and staying disciplined.
“Our role as defensive tackles is to take up two blockers as often as we can,” El-Bakri said. “That way the linebackers can skip across and make the tackle. We’re setting our feet so we can be stout. That’s the name of the game. Once we stop the double teams at the point of attack, because that’s how they run the ball, we’ll be knocking them out, boom!”
Taking a more cerebral approach is Tuiaki, BYU’s defensive coordinator.
“We didn’t do as good a job stopping the run last week (against Cal),” he said. “Our focus this week is just being physical and matching the physical play of Wisconsin. They were really physical last year and walking away from it I felt like we were beat up pretty well. Then I watched the game film and I thought we held up decently. Every game has its own personality. When you’re not scoring or getting the stops you need and the kids aren’t playing confidently, everything starts to spiral downhill from there. I felt like that’s how it was last year.”
BYU’s defense has historically been pretty stout against the run. Only twice since 2005 have the Cougars allowed more than four yards per carry over the course of a season: In 2005 (Bronco Mendenhall’s first year) and in 2017.
“I think we’ve come a long way (since last year),” Tuiaki said. “The BYU football front has been physical even before we got here. They were known for that. So we’re just trying to stay on par with those teams from the past and raise the bar.”
Tuiaki said Taylor was a good back utilizing a good scheme, but that the offensive line for Wisconsin should get more credit.
“They have nine offensive linemen returning back, guys who have started or had significant playing time. The back is good but the offensive line is good. Their tight ends are good. Their quarterback is good, too. Their receivers are good, too.”
By this time, Tuiaki has the assembled media laughing.
“They have a lot of really good players,” Tuiaki said with a smile. “They stick to their philosophy.”
So the task will be large on Saturday in front of more than 80,000 Badger fans at Camp Randall Stadium, a group that likes nothing better than to have a huge lead when House of Pain’s “Jump Around” comes on the PA system between the third and fourth quarters.
El-Bakri and his mates have prepared this week and have a belief they can get the job done.
“We’re going to surprise these guys,” El-Bakri said.