Nov. 18, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin is one of the few college football programs that still uses one. Still, there may not be a more nameless position in the two-deep. Fullbacks work in anonymity. Derek Watt is no different.
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson didn’t mention Watt by name. But he did say, “Their really good secret is the tight end and the fullback and the quarterback making checks to get them good plays.”
Without naming names, Wilson was saluting the contributions of tight ends Jacob Pedersen, Sam Arneson and Brian Wozniak; the blocking of Watt; and the pre-snap recognition of Joel Stave.
Summing up their contributions to the run game, Wilson said, “It’s a total team deal.”
Pedersen is such a good receiver -- he had three catches in Saturday’s 51-3 win over the Hoosiers, giving him 19 over the last five games combined -- it tends to overshadow his blocking.
Most of Wisconsin’s off-tackle or perimeter plays are predicated on Pedersen throwing a block. He may have had the Block of the Year on Indiana cornerback Michael Hunter, though it was wiped out.
Pedersen did nothing wrong in “decleating” Hunter but still drew a penalty. Unfortunately, too many officials automatically throw their flag when a defender is taken to the ground.
Watt also had a “decleater” on Wisconsin’s second touchdown drive. Watt overpowered Indiana linebacker T.J. Simmons, a 240-pound freshman, at the point of attack and put him on his back.
“You can tell I’m a little bigger than I was last year,” said Watt, a 6-2, 235-pound redshirt sophomore. “I’m definitely more experienced. I’ve had the game reps and things are starting to click.”
One year removed from making the conversion from linebacker to fullback, he said, “I definitely feel better. I’ve had more reps per game than I had last year, so things are looking pretty good.”
Left guard Ryan Groy, Watt and Pedersen are usually in the mix together -- helping open running creases for James White and Melvin Gordon. On power runs, Groy is the backside guard that pulls.
“You have to set the tone,” Watt said. “Whether it’s cutting them or just getting in there and being physical, you want to set the tone so they know what’s coming for the rest of the game.”
On Wisconsin’s first play from scrimmage against Indiana, the Badgers decoyed Melvin Gordon on the Jet Sweep and ran power with Groy pulling and tying up defensive tackle Ralphael Green.
It was all White needed to scoot a school-record 93 yards for a touchdown. Wide receiver Alex Erickson ran almost stride-for-stride with White and shielded safety Mark Murphy.
“It’s a pretty big accomplishment,” White said of the record that had stood for 50 years since Tom Brigham sprinted 91 yards for a score in the 1963 season opener against Western Michigan.
“I have to thank my offensive line and receivers for blocking for me, because it was blocked perfectly. It goes unnoticed how hard our receivers block.”
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Was there any concern White might run out of gas before reaching the finish line? “At first I didn’t think I had enough,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Run straight and you’ll be alright.’
“I forgot to look up at the scoreboard (at the north end). I just kind of peeked behind me and I saw Erickson there and thought, ‘I’ll be fine, I can pretty much cruise the rest of the way.”’
In ringing up 676 yards of total offense, 554 rushing, the Badgers were on cruise-control against an overmatched Indiana defense. It was the ninth straight victory in the series for Wisconsin.
Although senior Jared Abbrederis didn’t catch a pass for the first time since 2010 (37 games), he scored his first two career rushing touchdowns -- from 32 and 49 yards -- on Jet Sweep action.
No big deal, Abbrederis shrugged, as far as finding the end zone on a running play. “I really didn’t have to do much,” he said. “We had good blocking, so I just took the ball and ran.”
On the first score, Pedersen and Jordan Fredrick threw the downfield blocks for Abbrederis. On the second one, it was Arneson and White. “I went down and thanked them,” Abbrederis said.
White was excited by the execution of the play; an end-around variation of the Jet Sweep.
“It’s a play we’ve been working on for about two weeks now,” White said, “so we knew when we did run it, that it was it going to be wide open.
“I just wanted to make sure I stayed on my man (Murphy) long enough so he (Abbrederis) could get by me. He’s able to run the ball very effectively in space. Whenever he’s out there, he makes a play.”
Don't forget the defense
Indiana came into the game with as many playmakers on offense as anyone in the Big Ten. Yet, the Badgers held the Hoosiers to only 224 yards (3.7) and a field goal in a dominating performance.
Wisconsin had takeaways -- a Sojourn Shelton interception and a Brendan Kelly fumble recovery -- on Indiana’s first two possessions. “It set the tempo for the game,” said safety Dezmen Southward.
The Badgers won all of the physical battles, and most of the mental ones, too. Indiana quarterbacks Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson combined to complete just 12 of 30 passes for 122 yards.
“Our safeties were primarily responsible for confusing them,” said linebacker Chris Borland. “We were showing Cover 4 when we were actually running man (coverage in the secondary).
“And they were disguising other things and that was giving them trouble. They were checking into looks that were good for us.”
The Hoosiers are a no-huddle, hurry-up, fast tempo offense. It’s all about pace. And it’s all about the quarterbacks checking in and out of plays by looking to the sideline for direction.
“It’s cat-and-mouse, it’s a chess match,” Southward said. “We tried to hold a Cover 4 shell as long as possible but when they looked over, we’re taught to look over as well (to the UW sideline).
“If we’re showing pressure to the right and they look over and check off, we’re thinking they’re going to run to the left or do something to the left. So we change and bring pressure from the left.
“Usually, we’ll check it one time if they check. But when they checked twice, we checked our defensive call two times, which is pretty impressive on our part to have everybody on the same page.
“You’ll see some defenses give up an 80-yard bomb if they try and do something like that. We were really on our game and it showed against a top-10 offense in the country.”
Credit UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for moving around the chess pieces.
“Coach Aranda is like a mad scientist,” Borland said. “He always puts us in good looks. There’s a lot of trust between the players and him and he trusts us to make plays. It’s a good relationship.”
The next challenge for the Wisconsin defense will be a Minnesota offense that is averaging 30.7 points per game and 218.5 rushing yards in addition to converting on 11 of 14 fourth downs.
The Gophers have won four straight Big Ten games for the first time since 1973 and their eight victories overall are the most since 2003. The emotional catalyst is head coach Jerry Kill.
Given that the Badgers have won nine straight in the Border Battle -- dating to 2003 when the Gophers won in the Metrodome -- it should be a super-charged atmosphere in Minneapolis.
“I don’t care what has happened in the past, it’s real,” Southward said, “It’s a real rivalry.”
“Every trophy game is a big game,” said Watt, “and we’re trying to keep the Axe here.”
“It’s a game that has a lot of tradition,” White said. “Those guys will come ready to play.”
What more needs to be said about the Gophers and the Badgers?
“Not a whole lot needs to be said about this game,” Borland noted. “We’ve got a bunch of veteran guys who understand the importance of it all. It’s obvious they’re a much improved team.
“If we have to say something, there’s something wrong. I don’t think we have to say much.”