Michigan will win battle in trenches with Wisconsin
The Wisconsin Badgers visit “The Big House” on Saturday to play the Michigan Wolverines, in a battle of top-10 teams. The No. 1 reason both of these teams are ranked in the nation’s top 10 is their “old-school” style of physicality.
We breakdown lots of tape and many teams at Pro Football Focus, and both our grades and the performance on the field show that Wisconsin and Michigan are two of the most physical teams in college football. In today’s uptempo, spread offense-dominated landscape of college football, the Big Ten is probably the last bastion of the run-the-ball-downhill, huddle-up-and-do-it-again philosophy that would make the legends of yesterday smile.
The key to this game is Wisconsin’s offensive line and running game against Michigan’s front seven. Wisconsin is a double-digit underdog, and its path to victory has to be a ball-control style to dominate time of possession and temper the Big House crowd as best possible.
Here is how the Badgers’ run schemes make their hay, and how Michigan’s run defense dominates:
Wisconsin’s power run game is one of the best in the country
Wisconsin’s downhill running attack, which has led the Badgers to big victories against LSU and Michigan State — both of which are good defensive run teams — is a product of sound technique and scheme by their offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks.
Wisconsin’s offensive formations will employ at least one tight end or fullback, and often both on the field at the same time. A signature play for them is the “power” scheme employed below. The play side of the line, including the tight end, will block down at power angles to seal defenders inside, while backside lineman pull around to kick out the LSU defenders.
The key to this play being effective is the ability of the tight end to control his block and left tackle Ryan Ramczyk (Pro Football Focus’ highest run-blocking and overall tackle) creating movement for the fullback and running back to have the space to run through. This run play was made famous by the “Hogs” of the Washington Redskins offensive line in the 1980s, and this play is a throwback to that era.
Most college offenses’ favorite run play is the zone read. This zone play is a staple on Saturdays, and Wisconsin runs it a lot, but theirs is unique in that they let a fullback lead through while blocking double teams with their lineman. The play below highlights this beautifully, as the right guard and right tackle drive the Michigan State defensive tackle to the ground, and the fullback pins the linebacker inside.
But Michigan’s defensive front is probably even better
Michigan has PFF’s top-graded overall run defense, and star true freshman Rashan Gary is our second-highest-graded defensive end against the run, with teammate Chase Winovich also rating highly in run defense. Michigan runs an aggressive 4-3 defense, and this allows its defensive line to penetrate and defeat the offensive lineman lined up opposite of them.
Watch the power play below, as the left tackle gets knocked back inside, disrupting the pulling guard from coming around to block his defender.
The Wolverines rate so highly against the run because as a collective unit they are disciplined in their defensive run fits and run to the football. Most teams so far this season have tried to spread the Michigan defense out and run the ball, as Penn State tried below with a zone play to no avail.
The bottom line: Something has to give, and the edge goes to Michigan
Michigan has the advantage in this one of being the home team, and that combined with its shutdown run defense helps make the Wolverines a double-digit favorite in Las Vegas.
The one factor Wisconsin might be able to exploit is the fact that no team this season has lined up with a tight end and fullback and tried to run the ball and out-physical Michigan. Wisconsin has done it for four games now and has pushed around some good run defenses. Wisconsin arguably has the best offensive line in the nation at this, point but as shown above, Michigan’s aggressive 4-3 defensive scheme was crafted to stop the power-blocking schemes Wisconsin utilizes most.
We think Wisconsin will have some success running the ball in this one, but Michigan’s defense will own the day when it’s said and done.