You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 5 a.m.

Challenge for Michigan football team: Wisconsin's offense may be familiar, but it's difficult to stop

By Pete Bigelow


Wisconsin running back Montee Ball ran for 167 yards last week.

Associated Press

Michigan entered the 1981 football season ranked first in the country and poised for a national-championship run.

In an immediate letdown, Wisconsin’s physical rushing attack gashed the Wolverines’ defense for 197 rushing yards and ended their title hopes. Physically punished, Michigan lost its opener, 21-14.

Nearly 30 years later, not much has changed.

Most of the Big Ten has gravitated toward the spread offense, but Wisconsin’s remains similar to the one that overpowered the Wolverines that day.

The Badgers play perhaps the purest form of power football left in the conference. Oversized running backs, big tight ends and mammoth offensive linemen bulldoze opponents. It’s not that simple, although sometimes it seems that way.

“They run three yards and a cloud of dust, and three yards and a cloud of dust, and then the next play goes for 40 or 50 yards,” said Jerry Hanlon, a longtime Michigan assistant coach under Bo Schembechler who remembered the 1981 bruising all too well.

“Then add to that their play-action passing, which is something you have to guard against because you’re so enamored with stopping the run,” he said. “It’s very difficult to defend.”

That’s the dilemma Michigan will face Saturday (noon, ESPN) against No. 5 Wisconsin in a matchup of size versus speed.

The Badgers enter Michigan Stadium with the conference’s second-best rushing attack, averaging 228.2 yards each game, while the Wolverines defense ranks eighth in stopping it.

Though they have Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year candidate John Clay in the backfield, the key to that yards-per-game statistic may be size on the offensive line.

At 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, guard Kevin Zeitler is the runt of the Wisconsin offensive line. Starting tackles Gabe Carimi and Ricky Wagner stand 6-7 and 6-6, respectively.

Michigan’s chances of standing up to that group may hinge on Mike Martin’s creaky ankles. Martin missed last Saturday’s game against Purdue, but Rich Rodriguez said he expects Martin to play against Wisconsin, at least in a limited capacity.

Rodriguez will need Martin, the defensive line’s stalwart, to anchor Michigan’s defense.

“We can’t let them move the line of scrimmage down the field,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said.

Indiana found out what happens last week when Wisconsin wins that battle. The Badgers enjoyed their best offensive performance in 95 years. The Badgers rushed for 338 yards in an 83-20 victory.

The performance came without Clay, a potential Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, sidelined by an MCL injury. His backups, James White and Montee Ball, ran for 144 and 167 yards, respectively, and combined for five touchdowns. The secret?

“We still have the same linemen in there,” Carimi told The Associated Press after the game.

White admitted in a way, the running backs were essentially interchangeable parts behind the line.

“They were really big,” he said of the holes. “You could drive a truck through them. When the holes are that big, all us running backs have to do is just run through them.

Thing is, it wasn’t even the Badgers’ best rushing performance of the season. That came in a win over Austin Peay, in which Wisconsin rolled for 346 yards.

Negating the Badgers’ size is only one part of stopping them - in fact, focusing on that alone ignores the complexity of their blocking schemes and play-action passes.

“They pull and get those big guys out there on the perimeter,” Indiana coach Bill Lynch said. “They get out and stretch the play and create more gaps that, from a defensive standpoint, it’s more gaps you really have to have a hat on.

“So often, it’s a defensive back and it’s a mismatch, because the defensive back has to find the runner through all those big guys.”

It wasn’t just lowly Indiana that fell victim to Wisconsin’s bruising attack this season. On Oct. 16, the Badgers jumped out to a 21-0 lead against No. 1 Ohio State and held on for a 31-18 win.

The 31 points represented the most Ohio State’s defense, ranked tops in the Big Ten, has allowed all season. The 184 rushing yards Wisconsin registered were the most against the Buckeyes this season.

“They’re a physical, power football team for sure, but I think Paul Chryst and his staff have as much ingenuity and test you in as many different ways as any offense that we face,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.

“It’s not like they line up and say, ‘OK, here we come,’ and we know exactly what they’re doing. That’s not the case. I don’t know that I’d call them a throwback. I would call them very, very creative.”

Lynch and Rodriguez agreed the Badgers run more blocking schemes than any other team in the conference, and they pull more linemen than anyone else, as many as two or three at a time.

Linebackers face the most pressure in defending it. They need to react faster than usual, and that’s doubly difficult when facing a scheme they face perhaps only once a season.

If they over-pursue the running back, the Badgers are especially punishing.

“You start over-playing, and then they’re faking and throwing the ball behind you,” Hanlon said. “It’s not just line up and knock you off the ball. They have a method to their madness.”

Pete Bigelow covers Michigan football for He can be reached at (734) 623-2556, via e-mail at and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.



Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 11:39 p.m.

DaLast Word... the scheme isn't well executed, you say? And still one of the best offenses in the country. Just think how scary it will be when the players finally understand it. You people keep talking like Rich Rod can't coach. He coached very well for 20 years. All of a sudden he forgot? Give it a rest.

DaLast word

Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 9:28 a.m.

Normally I would say speed trumps size, but the scheme we play is not well executed and that's the coaches fault. tic toc tic toc.


Fri, Nov 19, 2010 : 12:20 a.m.

Wow, lots of comments that suggest Wisconsin will steamroll Michigan on Saturday. They still have to play the game. Don't count Michigan out.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 7:55 p.m.

Saw Ron Dayne on a recent B10 icons show. They interviewed LC and Marcus Ray who indicated that the whole plan was to gang-tackle him. It worked--though Dayne had a long TD against us, he didn't do to Michigan what he did to everybody else. I hope that our D takes lessons from that, and tackles by committee. That is the only way to beat Wisconsin in my opinion. Make them earn the yards. It is possible that the M offense will "outscheme" Wisconsin if we can get into open space, but if we are playing catch up all day, that does not play into our hands. But remember, old style offense can't win a championship, so Michigan wins big.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 7:01 p.m.

The U-M defense's only hope is to shoot the gaps and use their relative speed and quickness to meet the ball cariiers in the backfield. Otherwise, like a tank coming down the street, you know it's coming but you can't do anything to stop it.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 6:57 p.m.

Pete Bigelow commenting on the 1981 U-M - Wissonsin game: "Michigan entered the 1981 football season ranked first in the country and poised for a national-championship run. In an immediate letdown, Wisconsins physical rushing attack gashed the Wolverines defense for 197 rushing yards and ended their title hopes. Physically punished, Michigan lost its opener, 21-14. The U-M defense of 2010 would consider that score and amount of yards given up quite a defensive achievement and one of their best outings of the year.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 5:25 p.m.

I see little chance of a win for Michigan. If it happens, the offense played a near-perfect game and the defense got 4 or 5 stops on the day. Our D will get worn down and by the 2nd half will offer little resistance to the run. Meanwhile, the O will get cold on the sidelines as they watch WI eat up clock.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 4:45 p.m.

Are you folks kidding, this team is not in the same hemisphere with the Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, Iowa etc. and soon Nebraska. But keep on keepin on thinking Rodriquez is an offensive genius...OMG! What are you thinking, the Badgers scored 89 points to send Michigan a message that says, "hey we can score lots too!" And remember if you score 99 points we will score 100 and you still lose...sound familiar? Nuff sed.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 4:29 p.m.

I see us losing this game 63-34, and then RR explains how this is a great defensive effort, given that wisky scored 83 last week. He then blames the loss on all the crappy players, and urges us to wait for next year. Jim Harbaugh come home.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 4:27 p.m.

Boring perhaps, effective yes. Michigan doesn't have the size speed or experience on defense to stop them. Unless the turnover margin is plus three in Michigan's favor and they score on 75% of their possesions it will be a L for the Maize and Blue.

Sean T.

Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 4:21 p.m.

GoBlue, Your post was magic my friend. All I see is undersized players who have to send the house on defense to get pressure. A offense that has one player with elite speed and his back up is used to close the game out when we need to pass.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 3:53 p.m.

Gonna be ugly Saturday. Huge offense against undersized defense = no contest. If we actually had any of that speed we keep hearing about, maybe we'd have a shot, but in actuality, we don't. We have 1 fast player, or at least he was fast when the season started. There is no difference in speed between the current Michigan team and any of the upper division Big 10 squads. None.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 2:40 p.m.

Saginaw, Just had to ask what game you watched against MSU? If at first... you mean the first quarter... then OK. And when are UM's turnover's going to be credited to the opponent in this fantasy land? I don't recall a UM player running down the field, and dropping the ball when nobody is around him. I do recall the UM players getting hit, the ball popping loose, or a UM player throwing a poor ball because he was being harrassed... and an opponent stepping up and catching the ball. The opponent had as much to do with those turnovers (if not more) than the UM players did in losing the ball.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 2:28 p.m.

Wisconsin is quite similar to Michigan State -- in fact, little brother beat the Badgers. Both are very physical and try to run the ball. We started off very well against MSU and then the turnovers just killed. If we really hang onto the ball, we should win.

David Vande Bunte

Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 12:50 p.m.

The only way I see a Michigan win is if they can score first, force a few first half turnovers that get turned into points, and force Wisconsin to play catch up. If Michigan can't break away from Wisconsin early, they have no chance at all, Wisconsin's OL will wear them down completely, and will be able to manhandle them in the 4th quarter. The ONLY way this team can beat Wisconsin is to make them pass instead of run.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 12:07 p.m.

Wisconsin isn't going to do anything cutesy or "special" against Michigan. They're just going to come in and run their regular offense and dare us to slow them down. I would if I were them. So, Michigan's only chance is to slow them down somewhat, don't commit turnovers, don't screw up on special teams, and score lots of points! No problem.

Tim Wild

Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 10:45 a.m.

Stop linking Drew Sharp and the Freep garbage or I will remove this site from my menu. Supporting his made up slanderous claims is inexcusable for a real news outlet.


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 10:33 a.m.

Aw, come on people. Wisconsin has no chance to win. They run boring old offense that is outdated, can't win in the 2000s, and their guys are big fat and slow. They probably can't even withstand a Barwis workout, complete with Wisconsin chocolate milk. Earlier, I predicted a Wisconsin win, but now I have seen the light. UM 83 Wis 3 (that old style dated offense will move the ball on our third string defense, and RR will show Beilema a thing or two about running up the score).


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 10:21 a.m.

Odds makers have drop the line to 4 points!!!


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 9:25 a.m.

I remember that '81 game. It was a continuation of the "Sports Illustrated Curse". Whenever Michigan made the cover of SI in those days, a disaster was soon to follow. But, a win this year would be HUGE for the program. A win over Brett "Bully-ma" and his overconfident Badgers would feel good. Go Blue!


Thu, Nov 18, 2010 : 7:45 a.m.

Have no FEAR coz Rich Rod is HERE! In ROD we TRUST! LOL! Time for Coach Rod to show UM how good a coach he is!!! Beat the Badgers and the Buckeyes or step down!!!