Nebraska's Blackshirts defensive tradition would be much stronger if the Huskers never had to face Wisconsin. The sting of the 70-31 drubbing that Wisconsin administered to Bo Pelini's team back in 2012 had hardly worn off before their game on Saturday.
As it turns out, Melvin Gordon's 216 rushing yards on only nine carries in that 2012 Big Ten title game was portentous of even bigger things in this de facto Big Ten West title game. His 408 rushing yards in three quarters, part of Wisconsin's 581 ground yards in a 59-24 win, set the FBS record for rushing yards in a game. That established Wisconsin backs as the keepers of the FBS records for yards in a game (Gordon), yards in a career (Ron Dayne), and career rushing touchdowns (Montee Ball).
That Wisconsin achieved that feat with three different backs is no accident and is a testament to its consistently overwhelming play along the offensive line. Madison is a place where the raw materials of big farm boys and dairy products are assembled in what has become a premier NFL OL factory. Who says American manufacturing is dead?
The Huskers had to have known what they were facing on a day with freezing temperatures, snowfall, and heavy doses of Gordon. But the Badgers beat them at their own game and officially retained the crown as the division's premier power running program. So how did they do it?
The battle plans
Wisconsin has a diverse rushing attack. It's at its best when the Badgers are in bigger personnel packages, with their tight ends and fullback lined up in various positions.
Their run game is built around a combination of zone and power schemes, like most modern teams. They carried a few particular varieties of those plays into the game against Nebraska, which had a devastating impact on the Blackshirt responses.
One play that saw a lot of action against Nebraska was a double lead zone run that punctures multiple points along the line of scrimmage:
With a back like Gordon, who has a good deal of patience and vision, this play is pretty terrifying. The linebackers have to navigate the lead blocks on the interior and prevent any major creases from opening, because you don't want Gordon to hit a crease and have a chance to accelerate.
The next concept that Wisconsin leaned heavily on was a variety of a power run called counter trey:
The challenge for the offense is orchestrating blocks at the point of attack. The tight end has to cave in the defensive end without help. The double team of the defensive tackle has to get movement and climb to the middle linebacker.
However, if that goes well, the TE and OL have cleared room for the lead blocks to blow away smaller second- and third-level defenders. You get a fullback kicking out a cornerback, a guard pulling to hit the weakside linebacker, and the H-back blowing up the safety or whoever is left. Those latter three battles are likely to be big wins for the offense.
Against these murder-ball tactics, Pelini had a straightforward plan. Nebraska played a base two-read defense, akin to what Chris Ash runs at Ohio State. In this version of cover 4, or quarters coverage, the safeties don't focus on the run. That duty goes to the cornerbacks or linebackers:
Ideally, the safeties are free to make sure there are no deep passes that will hurt the defense. They trigger downhill quickly if the offensive line gives a low-hat run read (as in, the OL look ready to stay low and charge forward, not shuffle backward in pass protection). The DL and underneath defenders scrape hard to get the job done with a seven-man front, but the safeties have to be timely with solid run support.
Nebraska didn't drop safeties before the snap into a different defense like cover 3 very often, instead looking to have them play over the top and clean things up if Gordon found creases.
Pelini did not blitz the Wisconsin run game, perhaps fearing that the Badgers' multiple attack would easily out-leverage the Huskers and create opportunities for Gordon to reach the second level.
As everyone knows, if Gordon hits open spaces, his elite acceleration means he can be gone in a flash.
Wisconsin ran for a skyscraper
Why Wisconsin slaughtered Nebraska
Any time you allow an opposing team to run for more than 200 yards, you are probably going down hard. When you allow a singe player to more than double that total? You hang your head in shame.
Gordon himself was really only partly responsible for his tremendous day, but his part was not insignificant. The major question for Nebraska was, what happens when Gordon is up against defensive backs or linebackers in space? He can pull away and embarrass defensive players in the open field with regularity.
Nebraska's safeties, Nate Gerry and Corey Cooper, were repeatedly put into position where they had to make open field tackles to stop the Badgers from scoring. They led the Huskers in tackles, with nine and 10, respectively, as the front failed to bottle him up.
Josh Mitchell, a 160-pound cornerback, finished fourth on the team in tackles against Wisconsin, with five. His counterpart, Daniel Davie, had a tough day, with a few tongue lashings from Pelini after failures to maintain the edge against Wisconsin's bruising blockers and devastating runner.
Further complicating the process of bringing down Gordon in the open field was the play of Badger WR Alex Erickson, who made several key blocks in the middle of the field to further frustrate the safeties. If Nebraska was hoping DBs would encounter Gordon only occasionally and find success when they did, they were sorely disappointed.
This happened because the battle was really lost along the lines, where the Badgers thoroughly whipped Pelini's charges and executed key blocks like reaching tackles on zone, blowing them away on power, and controlling the ends.
In particular, the left side of the Wisconsin OL did great damage, along with in-line TE Austin Traylor, a 6'3, 248-pound scrapper who repeatedly won leverage battles against the Husker DEs.
While the entire Badger OL was fantastic, left tackle Tyler Marz (6'5, 321) and left guard Dallas Lewallen (6'6, 321) regularly overwhelmed, flinging their defensive tackles out of the way before advancing on the linebackers. An example from the second quarter, when Gordon really started to take off:
Wisconsin is in a double-TE set. Nebraska is asking the boundary corner to force runs to the short side of the field and the sam linebacker to force runs to the wide side. The Badgers are going to run a variety of their counter trey.
From this set, the key blocks are the double team of the nose tackle by the left guard and left tackle with the tackle successfully climbing up to the middle linebacker, the block of the right guard in kicking out the defensive end, and then the H-back blowing up the weakside linebacker.
The double team (1) goes swimmingly. The Badger tandem easily drives the nose tackle off the ball and allows Marz to reach the middle linebacker and cut off his access to the play. The kick-out block on the defensive end (2) creates a lane for the H-back to turn upfield and find the weakside linebacker (3), who is not decisive enough to fill hard and prevent a big crease.
In this version of the play, the TE gets to leave the DE to the guard and gets the more enjoyable task of clearing out the force defender, the cornerback (4), which has a predictable result.
With the battle up front won, now it becomes about Gordon and the defensive backs in the open field:
Nebraska's young safety Gerry breaks down too quickly. He is abused by the blazing Gordon, who's not caught until he's covered another 20 yards or so.
Given that straightforward game plan, it's interesting that Nebraska's defenders failed to make decisive fills. They were either confused by the variety of schemes and blocking patterns Wisconsin brought or unwilling to grapple with the Badgers in a 20-degree game.
The resulting capitulation meant a big victory for the Badgers, a record-setting day for Gordon, and probably an intriguing Big Ten championship matchup against Ohio State. Will the Buckeyes play the same two-read schemes against Gordon? If so, will they see better results than did Pelini's Blackshirts?