Wisconsin football head coach Bret Bielema has often gone on the record describing his offense as “not sexy.”
The run game has always been a prominent feature moving the ball down the field. It’s a dink-and-dunk affair the University of Wisconsin has been famous for.
Wisconsin may always be a run-first school at heart, but so far this season the foundations of an athletic pass game have been laid, balancing out an offense known for its ground work.
Through three games this season, the passing game has thrived with a fair amount of attempts and has, on occasion, opened up a stunted run game.
“Obviously we were very run happy last year and in the past,” center Peter Konz said. “Now a lot of people are noticing we have that guy who can run with his feet and pass and do all these great things in Russell Wilson, which is great. We’re definitely more balanced. You don’t see Wisconsin putting up much more rushing yards than passing yards, so it’s definitely balancing out.”
So far this season, the Badgers have attempted 128 rushes compared to merely 71 pass plays. Of those passes, 52 have been caught, resulting in a 73 percent completion rate. Despite the lopsided number of attempts, UW has gained 802 total yards passing, compared to 715 rushing yards.
The run game still reigns supreme, but the pass game is silently having success.
Last week against Northern Illinois University, Wisconsin ran the ball as many times as it passed by the end of the third quarter. Up 42-7 and having run a total of 62 plays throughout the game, the run game and the pass game were perfectly balanced.
In the fourth quarter, the Badgers kept the ball on the ground, but it was no longer surprising to see quarterback Russell Wilson fake the hand off and drop back in the pocket to find an open receiver.
“You got to have success in at least one aspect of the game to be successful, and we were able to have success through the air and also on the ground the past few games, but [we] aired it out a little bit more than we have in the past,” wide receiver Nick Toon said. “Love that as a receiver, but just have to go with what’s having success.”
Wisconsin will continually remain notorious for its run game, but the balanced attack helps switch things up and force opposing defenses to question what’s coming.
“Probably confuses them a little bit,” Konz said. “We’re throwing a lot of play-action. When we’re running, our offensive line shows that really hard. We try to do the same exact thing on play-action that we do on the run game.
“As weird as that sounds, it’s not what you think. If it’s play-action there’d be more pass block, but we try to make it look like a run. It’s probably really confusing. They’re probably trying to look at our stances to see if they can find different things, but it’s hard when you have to really defend against everything.”
Last year, with an efficient Scott Tolzien under center, the Badgers ran the ball 584 times and attempted the pass 276 times, completing 202 catches – which also results in a 73 pass completion percentage.
With two – almost three – 1,000-yard rushers, Wisconsin gained a total of 3,194 yards rushing, compared to 2,593 yards passing.
But this year a new variable, Wilson, entered the equation.
“I wouldn’t say that we haven’t had capable quarterbacks in the past, but Russell has a very strong arm and is able to stretch the field more than we’ve been able to do in the past and also make some things happen with his legs. Obviously a great, great player and very happy to have him as part of the Wisconsin family,” Toon said
One player who certainly doesn’t have any gripes about the balanced system is a healthy Toon. The Madison native leads the team with 14 receptions for 198 yards and three touchdowns.
“I love having the ball come my way,” Toon said.
Wilson may receive some credit for this evolution, but offensive coordinator Paul Chryst calls the plays based on what defenses are allowing the Badgers.
“We’ve been pretty balanced, I think it’s just how it is as the game dictates, but not trying to go one way or the other,” Chryst said. “Anytime you’re throwing the ball the quarterback’s going to be a big part of it. I think it’s a combination of being able to run the ball, and therefore the play action does have some validity through it.”
With a more balanced attack, sometimes the game plan becomes a reflection of the defense’s.
“If they’re going to give us the run or if they’re just going to give us the pass, obviously we’re going to take advantage of it,” Konz added.
Sticking with Wisconsin’s running reputation, coaches and players alike know the run game will prevail as a main fixture of their offense.
“I think we’re always a run-first offense, but if it’s working it’s going to work,” left tackle Ricky Wagner said.
But balance provides UW with two successful ways to find the end zone. The Badgers may be hesitant to let the pass game run rampant, but finding equilibrium on offense has made the team a dual threat and that much more intimidating to opponents.
“I think just having [Wilson] as a threat and everybody doing a great job like Montee [Ball], James [White] and the two tight ends catching the way they are – I think that just opens everything up for us. It’s great having a balanced attack because the defense will never know what it’s going to bring out,” Konz said. “Wisconsin’s always a run heavy school, but I can only hope we’ll be as balanced as we are, like in zen: You always want to be balanced. It’s yin and yang.”