Wisconsin doesn't have Denard Robinson. Let's make that clear. It lacks the dual-threat quarterback that can turn defensive strategies into mush.
And yet, Badgers coaches aren't fools. They saw the numbers Robinson totaled (340 yards) during Michigan's 44-13 win at Purdue last Saturday by using the zone-read option.
Could they try a zone-read option attack against the Boilers Saturday in what looms as a pivotal Big Ten matchup?
Absolutely, coach Bret Bielema said.
Wisconsin would have to tweak its pro-style offense given starting quarterback Joel Stave is not a runner. But it has a backup quarterback, Curt Phillips, whose strength is in a spread attack. Three knee injuries have limited him the last few seasons, although he did play briefly in last Saturday's win over Illinois.
“It was something we probably repped at least five weeks in a row and looked really good,” Bielema said. “It's definitely a package we feel strongly about. You saw what Michigan did against Purdue in the spread look. It's something we'll definitely explore and hopefully continue to build.”
Because coaches seldom go public with their strategies, Bieliema might have said that just to give Purdue coaches something extra to prepare for. Given the Boilers (3-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) have given up 85 points in the last two games, extra preparation was likely part of the plan, anyway.
“We have to do a better job of keying our reads, pulling the trigger and come downhill and fit up against the run,” Purdue coach Danny Hope said.
In other words, attack the line of scrimmage with discipline and effort. Bielema doesn't doubt the Boilers can do it.
“Purdue might have the best front four in our league,” he said. “They are really good inside, especially the defensive tackles (Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston).
“Short is powerful; he's quick; he's athletic; he's tall. He's got the ability to jump and explode and make big plays. He's a very gifted player.”
Stopping him, Bielema added, means getting good center and guard play.
“We have to stop penetration at the line of scrimmage. He's very effective when he gets penetration, either by movement or just whipping a guy at the line.”
Gaston left the Michigan game with a leg injury he first hurt a week earlier against Marshall. Hope sounded optimistic that Gaston will play on Saturday.
“Gaston is a kid we recruited very, very hard,” Bielema said. “He's a guy I liked in the recruiting process.
“They've got a number of guys (on defense) who do good things. Penetration at the line of scrimmage and not allowing them to disrupt the running game will be big.”
Wisconsin's traditionally imposing offensive line is returning to form after Bieliema fired line coach Mike Markuson after a 10-7 loss to Oregon State, and replaced him with Bart Miller, a grad assistant.
“Bart has done a nice job,” Bieliema said. “You've got to keep in perspective that the things (the offensive line) had been practicing, working, teaching, and becoming part of who they were dramatically changed after Oregon State. I knew at that point it wasn't going to be something to change overnight, but I knew there would be change, and it's been going in the right direction. I'm extremely happy with where it's at.”
That line has Hope concerned.
“They are a real challenge.Their smallest offensive lineman is 318 pounds. They're physical and they will mash you, come off the ball and knock you back. They hang their hat on playing well on the line of scrimmage.”
A big beneficiary has been tailback Montee Ball. He rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois. He has eight touchdowns for the season and 69 for his career.
“He's a fantastic player,” Hope said. “He's a very strong runner. He can make you miss. He breaks a lot of tackles. All of their running backs break a lot of tackles. They're a physical outfit.”
Saturday's stakes are high. Wisconsin (4-2 and 1-1) and Purdue are the Leaders Division favorites because Ohio State and Penn State are ineligible for postseason competition, and Indiana and Illinois are not expected to be factors. Saturday's winner at Ross-Ade Stadium will get an early edge.
“It would be a key win,” Hope said, “but there's a lot of parity in the league, a lot of surprises. There won't be any letdown (from the Michigan loss). The magnitude of this game will get our guys' attention.”