There wasn’t shouting or berating in the University of Wisconsin offensive line’s meeting room Sunday.
The football game the group watched together was ugly enough without line coach Joe Rudolph needing to pile on. The players sat and broke down the mistakes that plagued them throughout Saturday’s 41-13 loss to Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago, miscues that saw the Badgers (1-2) finish with 74 yards rushing. That total is the team’s fewest since a blowout loss at Iowa last season and the second-fewest since 2017.
For all of the criticism landing at the feet of UW redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz, the offensive line knows it didn’t do its part against the Irish to provide the offense with the running game it’s built upon.
“I think there’s just stuff we just got to clean up, just little things,” senior left tackle Tyler Beach said. “It’s always how it’s been, it’s always just cleaning up fundamentals, whether it’s footwork, trusting ourselves, finishing on plays, that’s just what it comes down to.”
UW’s line has to correct its mistakes quickly because No. 14 Michigan (4-0) is coming Saturday to Camp Randall Stadium riding high off four consecutive wins in which the defense has controlled the game. Michigan is holding opponents to 132.5 yards rushing per game and only has allowed one rushing score.
Two issues have come to light in the Badgers’ losses to ranked opponents this season — defensive fronts getting quick penetration to disrupt plays and the lack of rushing success on early downs setting up third-and-longs.
Defenses are finding too many holes in the UW line off the snap, which is resulting in rushes for 0 or negative yardage. Notre Dame, despite being without its starting nose tackle, was able to stop seven rushing attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage. After three such plays against Eastern Michigan and 13 against Penn State, UW has 23 rushes of 0 or negative yards this season. That accounts of 16.3% of the Badgers’ rushing attempts.
Stopping that penetration comes down to footwork and linemen cutting off defenders with their first steps — technique fixes Beach believes UW can make quickly.
UW had six third downs Saturday that were preceded by two rushing attempts. Four of those resulted in third downs needing 3 or less yards to convert, and only one was converted. The worst of these instances was on the Badgers’ last red zone drive, when two rushes netted 1 yard and UW had to throw on third-and-goal from the 9. That pass was incomplete, UW kicked a go-ahead field goal, but then surrendered a kick return touchdown and never again had the lead.
Teams are loading the box against the Badgers to take away the run — a common practice against UW and something the struggling passing game isn’t making the opposition stray from.
“They’ve got numbers on you … you’ve got so many guys that can go to so many to block it, right?” UW coach Paul Chryst said Saturday. “(A loaded box) also can then provide … other opportunities, and I think we were able to, at times, take advantage of (it) but not consistently. We never really forced them out of really having to do what they want. And they had control of it more than we did. We didn’t force their hand enough.”
Michigan’s defense under first-year coordinator Mike Macdonald has played with a heavy box often this season, so the Badgers know they’ll see it against the Wolverines. The line has to generate push on the line and attempt to clear lanes to the second level of the defense despite being outnumbered.
UW has been shuffling two groups of linemen into games. The starting group — Beach, Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson and Logan Bruss — typically gives way to the second group — Logan Brown, Cormac Sampson, Kayden Lyles, Michael Furtney and Bruss — on the third series of each half.
The second group played the third series of the first half, but the starters played 11 of the first 12 drives against Notre Dame. After Mertz was sacked and fumbled in the fourth quarter, a line of Beach, Sampson, Lyles, Furtney and Bruss played the rest of the way.
Chryst said Monday the offensive line rotation exists because players in both groups have earned the right to play, and the time on the sideline can allow players in both groups to learn from what’s happening on the field. Beach said the groups are used to playing together and the rotation can be valuable to keep players fresh and to see what the defense is doing from a different angle.
But being pulled from the game also can be challenging for a young player, such as Nelson, a redshirt freshman, to establish a rhythm on the field.
“Changing O-lines, just not playing the entire game and switching it up, it’s always going to be hard to kind of get that continuity,” Nelson said. “But there’s pros and cons — there are certain pros to rotating lines. I trust coach Rudy and coach Chryst thinking that’s the best way to do it. I trust them.”
UW’s line didn’t have to play against Michigan’s star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson last season — Hutchinson broke his leg the week before the Badgers went to Ann Arbor and won 49-11. But he’s playing his best football right now with 5½ sacks in four games. Expect Hutchinson to be a point of emphasis for the offensive line regardless of who’s on the field.
“I think that with last year’s performance against Michigan, we kind of put the beat down on them,” Nelson said. “So they’re going to be looking to get some revenge and we’re looking to kind of get back on our feet here. So I think it’s going to be a good matchup.”