If Saturday’s game between the University of Wisconsin football team and Army proved anything, it’s why teams don’t like playing Army.
The Black Knights frankly outplayed the Badgers in the second half, but UW junior linebacker Leo Chenal made a game-swinging play by forcing a turnover — something the defense has discussed doing for weeks — and UW came out with a 20-14 win at Camp Randall Stadium.
Army also matched the Badgers’ physicality for much of the game, something that surely led to some sore bodies at the UW facility on Sunday. Still the Badgers (3-3) got back to .500 and the door is open for a run at the Big Ten Conference West Division crown, crazy as it seems.
Here are four observations after rewatching UW’s win.
1. Army’s game plan eventually worked, just not for long enough
One of the most useful byproducts of writing this weekly feature is seeing where initial reactions can be wrong.
Army’s lack of outside runs through two-plus quarters Saturday made little sense live, because the few successful runs against UW this season have been ones that attack the edges. But there was a good reason — UW’s defenders did a great job sticking with their assignments until late in the third quarter.
The Black Knights’ triple-option scheme is based on the quarterback making the correct read play after play to give Army the numbers advantage blocking or to attack space on either side of a flat-footed defender. UW’s edge players, mostly their outside linebackers and occasionally a safety who walked down into the box, simply made giving the ball up the middle the correct read for Army’s QB.
Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard trusted his inside linebackers, junior Chenal and senior Jack Sanborn to get off blocks and make plays. That pair rewarded him with 29 combined tackles, including 2½ for loss from Chenal. Chenal created the strip-sack in the fourth quarter that helped win the game for UW.
Army finally started to get on the edge in the second half and had success, rushing for gains of 35 and 26 yards when UW’s edge players were too often diving into the middle in an attempt to help with the inside handoffs.
2. Goetz gets his day
UW junior C.J. Goetz hasn’t had the opportunity to play as much as it appeared he might during training camp — senior Noah Burks and sophomore Nick Herbig have been playing so well that what looked to be a rotation at the outside linebacker position has been almost exclusively the top two.
But Goetz, with his 6-foot-3, 243-pound frame, got extended playing time to help UW combat the triple option. Leonhard most often deployed a 2-5-4 defense grouping — two defensive linemen, two inside linebackers, three outside linebackers, four defensive backs (three safeties and one corner) — to match Army’s physicality inside without sacrificing the quickness needed to contain Army’s backs.
Goetz had seven tackles, including 1½ for loss in his hybrid linebacker/defensive end role, a job he was comfortable doing after starting his UW career as a defensive end. Goetz’s full TFL came in the first quarter, a play on which he stopped a third-down run.
Goetz said he was told Monday by position coach Bobby April to attend the defensive line meetings in the lead-up to the Army game, but don’t be surprised if he earn himself a few more snaps during the second half of the year.
3. Pick your poison with Mertz
For weeks, folks online were begging, nay demanding, that UW quarterback Graham Mertz throw the ball deep in order to help the Badgers offense.
The benefits are clear, as chunk plays are good and difficult for UW’s offense to achieve regularly.
Mertz did hit senior receiver Danny Davis down the left sideline for 36 yards on a ball that was underthrown and Davis did a great job adjusting to it through contact. That play helped set up a touchdown drive in the second quarter. Mertz tried three other times to hit Davis deep, once late in the first half and two times on the same drive in the third quarter. None were caught.
It’s easy to play the results and blame Mertz for being inaccurate on these throws, but the truth of the matter is even incomplete deep shots can serve a purpose. They can change a defensive coordinator’s thinking about where safety help should be or which corner should be matched up with a particular receiver.
There’s no question that Mertz has to be better on deep throws, especially when considering his underthrows cost UW points two weeks ago at Illinois, but in the baby-steps-still-count situation the Badgers’ offense is in, just taking the deeper attempts is a small win.
An aside to this point: UW is running on just a shade under 71% of its first downs, so Mertz’s deep shot on a first down to Davis at least puts on tape that he’ll try one on first down.
4. Bail on the screens
Sometimes, a team’s personnel or those players’ execution make a scheme not worth attempting even when the situation is right. UW is at that point with screen passes.
Take out the shovel-pass screen to tailback Chez Mellusi against Notre Dame and the Badgers haven’t had success with screens despite calling them at perfect times. UW tried three screens against Army and those plays gained minus-4 yards.
UW coach Paul Chryst has caught defenses in blitzes when he’s called screens — typically the best time for a screen — but they’re still not hitting. UW’s offensive line isn’t getting off their initial block and into their lanes quickly enough and too often defenders are closing in on the receiver before the ball is even in the air.
A time comes when a section of the play sheet just needs to be ignored.