When Wisconsin lines up on the offensive side of the ball against Purdue Saturday, the game will have the vintage trademarks of smash mouth Big Ten football.
A physical, explosive running back deftly reading blocks behind a massive offensive line, a physically overpowering group of defensive linemen awaiting Montee Ball and Co. on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Led by senior defensive tackle and preseason All-American Kawann Short, there is near-unanimous agreement among coaches and players that Purdue has the best defensive line of any team the Badgers have faced this season. A freewheeling unit that values up-field power rushing over adjustments at the line of scrimmage, the UW offensive line will have to stay true to its fourth quarter form of Illinois to successfully rush the ball early.
The Badgers rushed for 97 yards in that final quarter, leaving the much-maligned offensive line with a renewed sense of confidence as they walked off the Camp Randall turf.
“As good as some people think the fourth quarter was, there’s still a lot of things we can work on and still a lot of things we can improve on,” left guard Ryan Groy said.
“It was something for us to get some confidence back, something for other teams to see we can finally run the ball again.”
But more than a conference win is on the line at Ross-Ade Stadium this weekend. With Illinois and Indiana each without a Big Ten win and Ohio State and Penn State ineligible for postseason play, the Leaders Division title may very well be decided in West Lafayette.
As the Boilermakers take the reigns on the offense, the nostalgic vision of Big Ten football will tumble when a spread offense that relies on the talents of two different quarterbacks takes the field. A pair of seniors in Caleb TerBush and Robert Marve – a former starting quarterback at Miami – will attempt to thread their way through the Wisconsin secondary.
Both signal-callers have the ability to dart from the pocket but TerBush’s 26 rushes rank second on the team while Marve has proven the more efficient passer, completing 71.9 percent of his passes through five games.
But the UW defense has had ample practice against quick-footed quarterbacks this year, already facing Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase. Learning to read a designed run from a drop-back pass is an acquired skill, one co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge says his defense is building.
“Confidence and when it’s right to be aggressive – when it’s right to take a risk,” Partridge said. “Understanding that if I took a risk and it didn’t work, then I have to recover and protect my space. Guys are getting confidence in the timing of those things.”
Regardless of who is under center, Purdue’s favorite downfield target will be junior wide receiver O.J. Ross, who has had at least five receptions in each game this season.
But once again holding together a Wisconsin defense facing one of the few Big Ten squad with more yards through the air than on the ground is one of the conference’s top linebacking corps. Though middle linebacker Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who rank first and sixth in the conference in tackles, respectively, receive much of the attention, oft-overlooked third wheel Ethan Armstrong earned team defensive MVP honors with 10 tackles against the Fighting Illini.
In one of Wisconsin’s better defensive performances of the season, the defensive line combined for four sacks and 5.5 tackles for a loss.
“The D-line was getting sacks and TFLs; the secondary was getting interceptions, pass deflections; [the linebackers] were getting tackles,” Armstrong said. “Everything was very sound, it was fitting the way it was supposed to.”
And it may take a similar performance against Purdue to keep the drive to Indianapolis alive. At 413.4 total yards per game (fifth-highest in the Big Ten), the Boilermakers’ offense can be dangerous when it finds openings through the air.
Sitting dead last in those same rankings is Wisconsin, with just 328.8 total yards of offense per game. While redshirt freshman Joel Stave has showed marked development and poise in his first three career starts, he will have to beat a frugal Purdue passing offense led by cornerback Ricardo Allen.
“When you do throw it, they’re going to break on it – and they’re going to break hard,” Stave said. “So you just got to make sure you’re throwing it on time and really got to be accurate with it.”
Still searching for its first road win of the season, Wisconsin’s battle with Purdue will be a chance for Wisconsin to prove it can finally piece together a complete game on both sides of the ball. Against a team that nearly knocked off Notre Dame, now ranked No. 7, in its second game of the season, the Boilermakers present arguably the most important road tests of the season for the Badgers.
“It’s a critical test for our offense, for our whole team,” Groy said. “It’s how can we go to another road game – we’ve already lost two road games – and bring the same intensity as we have in home games and play a full, four-quarter game.”
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