Fee Fi Foe Film: Wisconsin Defense 2019

Fee Fi Foe Film: Wisconsin Defense 2019 Seth September 19th, 2019 at 3:05 PM
Next clones up [Patrick Barron]

Previously: The Offense

Resources: My charting, UW game notes, UW roster, CFBStats, last year

For a quarter and a half I got to learn things about Wisconsin's resuscitated defense. Then USF and CMU discovered foot pedal trash cans.

USF is the one in green who at least recognizes it's funnier when his brother gets it.

I'm going to suppose, for the purposes of this post having any relevance, that Michigan's offense got this out of their system, that not ALL of our best players are going to be injured, and that we're not all living in some Ohio State kid's NCAA '07 dynasty, despite [gestures to all this]. I'm also going to suppose the Badgers defense can't maintain its preposterous 2.15 yards/play and 107.5 yards/game over its entire schedule.


Okay they can't maintain it against us though. Right?

The film: USF, which had dorfed more plays than they hadn't by the time I gave up charting them late in the 3rd quarter, because CMU's response to this was "Hold my beer."

Personnel: My diagram: 

PDF Version, full-size version (or click on the image)

[After THE JUMP: November 12, 1955]


Let's start with this thing about NT Bryson Williams being out and Wisconsin "starting a true freshman nose tackle." Since it's 2019 Wisconsin tends to spend most of their time in a 2-4-5 nickel, where the DEs are defensive tackles, and the OLBs are stand-up defensive ends, and Biff... "WDE" (DT) Garrett Rand (+2/-1 in my charting before half-assing it hour) and "SDE" (DT) Isaiahh Loudermilk (+4/-2) are the two guys they really really missed last year—Loudermilk gave it a go in 2018 but wasn't himself. They're both built to be 3-4 defensive ends, but had no trouble winning strength battles against USF's line. Because they were so rarely in their "base" defense, Williams was used more as  Rand's backup, with Loudermilk spelled by former walk-on/disaster Matt Henningsen (+7/-0), who had the game of his life in this one. He's still walk-onish—do not ever ask this man to move laterally—but he's up 30 pounds from last year (when he was my pick for the worst defender we faced all season) and had the strength to consistently bully USF and CMU. How that translates against Michigan is anyone's guess.

Once things were really settled, Williams's backup, the true freshman Keeanu Benton, came in. Then I clipped his first three snaps.

This could mean the USF line was just bad. Or it could mean Ohio State Kid inserted a boss from Dark Souls III in the game's code.

The OLBs (DEs), Zach Baun on the strong side, and Izyah Green-May/Noah Burks on the weakside, are rarely asked to drop into coverage. Green-May looks more like a tight end prospect and is questionable for this game. Baun was a menace, especially once USF's comedic ventures landed them in a four-score deficit and he could just focus on pass rush. He'll be back for the dangerman section.

Somehow MLB Chris Orr is still around despite starting since 2015, and playing over Leon Jacobs, Ryan Connelly, Jack Cichy, and T.J. Edwards, in his time. Orr is a plugger who knows where to be, but rarely pops out like those other guys. They've found another clone to be that unrecruited dude who knows how to weave through free-releasing OL or knife past a pulling guard to chop down the runner in WLB Jack Sanborn. They'll also play ILB Mike Maskalunas, a walk-on, either in place of or between these two, but if Maskalunas is the next Cichy that's apparently in the future. He is around the ball a lot, leading the team in tackles despite the role.

The secondary is again missing boring FS Scott Nelson, a Detroiter Michigan was after until Jaylen Kelly-Powell committed. Nelson was also out for the first half of this game last year (targeting), so we're already familiar with his backup, FS Eric Burrell, a slightly combustible athlete they were keeping on the field as a hybrid space player already. The new SS Reggie Pearson is also a familiar face, since he replaced injured/finally graduated D'Cota Dixon. Pearson is a close facsimile to the diminutive Dixon: good in coverage, likes to come down and blitz or hang high and rocket down really fast. You know: annoying. Tiny Madison Cone is still around in a Jon Shaw role and no YOU brought this up just because you're the only person who remembers Jon Shaw.

Speaking of annoying, the same foursome of grabby, unathletic cornerbacks remain, though last year's backups are this year's starters: boundary CB Deron Harrell, who moved last year from receiver, and field CB Faion Hicks, the little guy who kept playing 11 yards off DPJ because speed is an issue. The backups still rotate in plenty: Caesar Williams is a Brandon Watson type without the SWATSON powers. Rashad Wildgoose was the serendipitously named corner getting torched on Shea's 82-yard run we might as well watch again for the giggles.

It's still too nice outside for the hoodies, but their style of play is a performance commentary on the state of NCAA officiating that should make Michigan and Michigan State both concerned they're going to ruin handsiness for everybody.

No this wasn't called. In fact after it bounced off this guy's chest it ricocheted to Burrell. This was about par for the course for USF's night.

Base Set: Okay this is kinda interesting.


Wisconsin is a 3-4 team, and when 3-4 teams go to a nickel they usually pull the big, two-gapping nose tackle for an extra defensive back, playing their quasi-DT ends over the guards and having the middle linebacker cover both A gaps so their two OLBs can remain wide of the formation and be blitzy/edgy dudes (exactly like how Michigan State plays its 4-3). Even before NT Bryson Williams went out, they were playing their nickel as a base, using two strong safeties, with one of them acting as a strongside linebacker.

In this game, and then a lot after they lost Williams, Wisconsin decided to use that nickel front even against more old fashioned personnel, except instead of a nickel they replaced the nose with an extra linebacker between the MLB and WLB, a more extreme variation on how 5-2 Eagle defenses (e.g. Woody Hayes's OSU defenses) used to move the nose a yard or so off the line of scrimmage.


This incredible innovation (it's a 4-3) allows each of the players to aggressively cover a gap (like in a 4-3) instead of trying to dominate the player across from him. This works for their personnel because their ends are closer to 300 pounds (like, you know, tackles in a 4-3), and their outside linebackers are able to stand up to single-blocking on the edge and don't really back into coverage that much (like 4-3 ends), bringing their linebacker-like speed to bear on pass rushes (as ends do in a 4-3). It's amazing nobody thought of this before (…Tom Landry in the 1950s).

The wonders of modern 3-4 defense never cease.

I kept charting for the first half but the game got out of hand so fast it's not worth reporting this week. The funny games stopped after a few drives and the Badgers just stayed in their 2-4-5 nickel with one or two safeties high and four pass rushers. They'll mix up Cover 2 and Cover 3 a lot, and when they blitz it's either a Double-A gaps blitz (like MSU's 4-3 defense) or a safety coming on a delayed blitz from a Cover 3 pre-snap look that converts to a Cover 2.


What shall we call the hybrid today?: Nickel safety.

Man or zone coverage: Cover 2 and Cover 3.

Pressure: GERG or GREG: Historically they've been a rush-five team with all kinds of interesting stunts, but doing more 2-5-4 (ahem, 4-3) has limited that, and the current crop of DEs is much better at pushing guys than trying to loop around. They all have good acceleration, but not agility, which makes for long loops that USF was able to handle. Considering they couldn't be trusted with ice cream cones that night, that's saying something. Course, these are blowouts. I'm sure they've saved the nasty blitzes for Michigan.

Dangerman: The guy to really worry about is Zach Baun. Last year he was an quietly elite pass rusher who was often very close to a sack or TFL and rarely got that to pay off. This year, he's getting that excellent outside rush & dip combo to pay off:

AND he's worked on an inside-outside and outside-inside moves that work a quarter of the time but also tend to stretch his athleticism and end up with him on the ground. This makes his pass rush a lot more dangerous if you get in a situation where you have to throw. He's also improved dramatically as an option defender. USF tried this twice, and twice Baun scuttled the keep then took out the pitchman in the backfield.

The other new Dude this year is WLB Jack Sanborn, the latest off the Ryan Connelly line. Like the rest of his exctype, Speciform ILB57.c was designed around the ability to diagnose and knife through your blocking wherever it's trying to go. Here he sees the pulling tackle and meets that guy at the running back's knees:

Here he gets to a tunnel screen before the OL.

Here USF tried to win a free release on Sanborn for their right guard (an easy block) by asking the center to reach Isaiahh Loudermilk (hard). It works! Loudermilk didn't get edged but he got run upfield and only barely hampered the RB, which is good enough. Sanborn dodged it and made the play.

I know, you guys are gonna be like "Sanborn was #337 to the 247 composite—that's like a 4-star!" Use your eyes, sheeple! Also, I should mention Loudermilk, who's now healthy, nearly 300, plays with great leverage, and is just an all-around pain in the ass.

I was tempted to give a star to Garrett Rand before this scout, since he's been as important in a similar role to Loudermilk. I didn't because he's not a great fit for nose tackle in a 4-3 and yes I'm sorry Chryst your refusal to use the correct terminology does not change what you arel


Squinting through all of USF's self-harm, here's what up we're up against in one compact clip:

Last year they had crappy DEs and Michigan pounded them mercilessly. This year they have good DEs they're asking to be DTs. Michigan's interior OL could change the equation here.Garrett Rand is #93 and got his best pass rush snap of the day, thereby demonstrating what they often get from Loudermilk or Henningsen. When you add straight-up push inside to Zach Baun's pass rush, you get very little time to get the ball out. When they don't dent the pocket, Baun gets run upfield, and a savvy quarterback can sit in for a bit. I have a sinking feeling that when this occurs Shea is going to bail, and against a Cover 2 that means meeting the cavalry after an unfruitful gain. Then again, we've seen Harbaugh fix this issue in quarterbacks after bye weeks before. It matters much.

It matters in the run game too; pushing around a tiny USF center is one thing; Cesar Ruiz quite another. Onwenu and Bredeson are two of the best in the biz. While they're crafty and would probably get a lot of snaps at Michigan right now, Rand and Loudermilk still have a lot of DE in them. If they stick with those guys, I think Michigan has the advantage on the line, albeit not in the spots they had it last year. Remove a linebacker with Gattis's bag of tricks, and see how the other one does when you're depositing his bros in his lap.

I would rather stick with the #SpeedInSpace script. Wisconsin might have something in that freshman nose tackle, Benton, and they're not serial slanters like Nebraska/SMU/Rutgers because that's not how they want to play, so unlike our previous two opponents Michigan won't have the option of plowing over them and expecting to break a few with RPS wins. In 2015 I'd say Harbaugh would add meat to the backfield and trap that poor kid a bunch. I don't know what Gattis has in store for him. Midline reads perhaps. Michigan can also stay in their base spread offense and leave that guy on the bench if it turns out what I saw wasn't just a USF Bull not really interested in locking horns with a yearling.

In the secondary, they're going to be another zone challenge for our quarterback whose history with zones is not great. The clip above is a simple "smash" (high/low) read on the cornerback. This time the cornerback stayed on the flat and the high read was wide open. It's a simple enough read. There's also going to be some opportunities to hit receivers underneath soft cornerbacks, with minimal fear of those guys suddenly making an uncanny break on the ball.

Some of the #SpeedInSpace things we saw in spring should be back this week, particularly the part where they ran a back out one way and forced a linebacker to leave the play because of it. Anything that gets Sanborn or Baun to use themselves up somewhere they can't make a play ought to give Michigan's other athletes an upper hand. Third and longs are bad. Fumbles and penalties and not making your reads is bad. All of the other offenses Wisconsin plays until late October are bad, so Jim Leonhard is probably going to empty the drawer for this one.

If this doesn't sound like I'm describing a unit that's been almost twice as good as the #2 team in the country in total defense…


…well, yeah, sure. I officially stipulate that if Wisconsin continues to give up half as many yards as Michigan State this year, Michigan is going to get their asses kicked, and so will everyone else. Obviously this is unsustainable. Obviously it's not a total mirage. Trying to find sense between the extremes, I believe Wisconsin is really built to punish you if you get behind the 8 ball, but doesn't have the star power of previous years to battle back when you're the one controlling the narrative. They're like double-sized Army (boo!) except they learned tactics from a block of cheese instead of the experts at West Point (yay!). I really mean it this time: DON'T SCREW UP!

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September 19th, 2019 at 3:24 PM ^

I think it is safe to say this game is on Patterson's shoulders. If he makes the correct reads and doesn't fumble 2 times we should be in good shape. If he keeps fumbling and hesitating instead of throwing to open guys...it could be a long day.

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September 19th, 2019 at 3:30 PM ^

a 2-5-4?!? ...with no DT? That's redic!

Are they really that deep in LBs compared to their DTs?

How will this impact Patterson's run keep decisions? Less keep and more handoff behind M's interior O-line vs. DEs acting as DTs?

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September 19th, 2019 at 3:33 PM ^

The only thing I can focus on is that they have a guy named Isaiahh and a guy names Izyah.

I can't bring my mind back from the utter confusion/wonder caused by reading that.

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September 19th, 2019 at 3:39 PM ^

Please tell me we're going to throw at them. I look at that base set photo of 7 v 6 and can already see us running into it instead of challenging the Strong Safety's pass coverage.

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