The Trench Report: Wisconsin

By Steve Sturm - IlliniGuys Football Contributor

October 12, 2021

I wish I had more positive things to say about the Illini's performance today in the trenches.  However, anyone who watched this game knows what happened here: Wisconsin dominated Illinois on both sides of the line to a degree that we've rarely seen.  I have to say I was surprised at the degree of the Badgers' dominance in this area.  Wisconsin has 3 quality losses coming into the game, but still, they were only 1-3.  Not only that, but though Wisconsin has been consistently good on both sides of the line this year, so has Illinois.  Plus, I figured that Brett Bielema would be the guy with the key to besting the classic Wisconsin formula.  Instead, we saw Wisconsin out rush Illinois 391-26.  I've been an Illini fan my whole life, so I've seen a lot of beatings.  However, I don't recall a rushing disparity that great.

I'll cover the defense first this week:

This play was part of the first series of the game for Wisconsin.  Though Illinois was able to stiffen near the goal line (in part because of Wisconsin's curious decision to pass twice near the goal line), I thought it was an excellent example of Wisconsin's dominance in the trenches.

Wisconsin comes out in a two tight end set with two receivers on the same side and Illinois responds by putting eight men in the box as part of what's essentially a 4-3 defense that Illinois is running more and more with Carney's hand on the ground and Gay lining up on the end standing up.  So, in theory Illinois should have the advantage with 8 defenders on seven blockers, including three players who primarily play inside linebacker.  However, Wisconsin's blockers easily win their reps on this play, and Gay gets caught up in the block of Woods and has no impact on the play.  Its a particularly ugly rep for Illinois' inside linebackers.  Tolson gets a face full of the pulling guard and manages to hold his ground, so he gets a passing grade on this play.  But McEachern jumps into the wrong hole and then gets put on skates going backward while Barnes not only gets soundly beaten by a tight end that is no bigger than him, he seems to let Mellusi go and then gets caught watching the pile as Mellusi keeps working for yards.  Jamal Woods gets blocked by the left guard but hustles back to get into the play and passes Barnes who has given up on the play.  You'll often see defenders with plays like this at the end of a game in which they've been on the field facing a strong running game.  But when it happens on the first series of the game you know you're in trouble.

Wisconsin really imposed its will from the start of the second half.  The Badgers barely paused on this march down the field at the beginning of the second half, and Illinois already looked spent on these next two plays.

On this play, Illinois is running the same sort of set, with eight players committed to stopping the run.  However, the defenders are already worn down on this, the 13th play of the drive.  Wisconsin pulls its right tackle and guard to the left and creates a seam that the 238 pound freshman Braelon Allen hits with ease.   Then, Allen breaks an arm tackle by Sydney Brown and struggles forward for a few more yards for a total of 13.   Illinois is manhandled across the line, but its a particularly tough rep for DJ Johnson, who ends up eating turf on a block from a tight end.  The true freshman is going to need some work in the weight room before he's sufficiently able to take on blockers as good as Wisconsin's. When I saw this play, I said to myself that we're in trouble if they run again, and I was right, because on the 14th play of the drive Wisconsin switched it up a bit but kept the pressure on Illinois' run defenders with this quick pitch play:

Again, Illinois is selling out against the run with eight defenders in the box, including three inside linebackers in McEachern, Tolson and Barnes.  However, the result is the same as Wisconsin pulls two blockers to the left and runs Illinois' defenders right out of the play.  Alec McEachern overpursues Mellusi and then runs right into the block of the pulling tackle, who physically dominates him.  Tolson has no chance against the pulling guard, though he does manage to set the edge.  Barnes takes a couple of mis-steps away from the ball and takes himself out of the play entirely.  Tony Adams throws his body into the runner with some vigor, but he's nowhere near powerful enough to take down Mellusi without wrapping up.  Meanwhile, the defensive linemen hold their ground, but that's not their job on this play and Wisconsin's 244 pound Clay Cundiff seals the hole so that none of them can pursue and take part in the play.

We're all aware that Wisconsin executes in the running game as well as any program in the country.  However, Illinois had far too many examples like this on the day, with defenders standing and attempting to absorb blocks rather than attacking the blocker and penetrating while tacklers fail to wrap up.  This series was the first of the second half so the defense should have been rested.  However, Wisconsin exerted their will on this drive and Illinois never really recovered.

Obviously its tough to determine whether Illinois struggled more on the offensive or defensive side of the trenches, but there was one play I wanted to highlight both because it was Illinois' best offensive play of the day but also because it involves an aspect of the offense that I highlighted in last week's trench report.

Illinois comes out in a strong formation to the wide side of the field with two receivers at the top of the screen and Ford shifting in to be the end man in the formation.  However, since Wisconsin honors the three receivers on that side of the field and leaves a safety deep, Illinois has four blockers against four defenders on the short side of the field.  The corner runs with Washington and the safety stays deep, so Lowe merely has to block the 240 pound outside linebacker.  Kramer and Pihlstrom have a combo block on the defensive tackle, with Pihlstrom supposed to be climbing to the second level to take on the linebacker.  However, the linebacker attacks the wrong hole and takes himself out of the play so Illinois essentially has a double team on the tackle and a mismatch on the linebacker to spring Chase Brown, who earns the last 10 or so yards on his own with a nice move on the safety who is late in crashing down against the run.

The second reason I'm highlighting this play is because Sitkowski carries out his fake with "belly" action.  I wrote about this last week and was pleased to see Illinois incorporating "belly" action a dozen times or so this week.  Look how Sitkowski holds the ball in Brown's belly for a split second before carrying out his fake by running away from the play side.  You've all seen this before because it was a big part of Rod Smith's offense the last few years.  However, Tony Petersen hasn't been using this tool.  The safety on the wide side has to take a couple of steps toward the line and square up to the ball in order to honor Sitkowski as a runner.  That prevents the safety from having the opportunity to come across the formation and become part of the play.  The belly action probably had no effect on this particular play, but every little mis-step by the defense helps, and every so often the defender will fail to honor the threat of the quarterback as a runner and produce free yards.  I hope Illinois keeps this up and lets Sitkowski run a time or two.

However, the real story of the offense on the trenches was the inability to establish the run, which has been Illinois' strength on offense.  In fact, the play I just highlighted was technically 23 of Illinois 26 rushing yards on the day.  There were numerous examples of Illinois' futility Saturday, but I chose this one because it shows Wisconsin defending a similar play and feeds into the next thing I wanted to discuss.  There's a key difference between this play and the first one I highlighted because this time Illinois puts Ford on the play side and Wisconsin is ready for it.

This play is doomed from the start because Illinois is outmanned on the play side.  Wisconsin has seven men in the box against Illinois' six blockers.  But, what's worse is that Illinois is also outmanned four to three on the play side, and that's before you take into account 260 pound Leo Chenal on the blitz up the middle.  On many plays Brown might be able to outrun Chenal, but with the safety holding his ground against Luke Ford on the edge there's nowhere for Brown to go on this play.  But really, none of Illinois' blockers win this rep.  Note that the weakside safety is probably the only box defender who doesn't take part in this play because he has to honor Sitkowski as a runner.

So, what could Illinois have done to succeed in this situation?  Well, an audible was obviously in order on this particular play because unlike the first example Wisconsin only has three defenders on the wide side of the field to defend three Illinois receivers.  We all know that Sitkowski had a really rough day throwing the ball, but even a swing pass to Williams at the top of the field was a better option than this and you'd think Sitkowski could complete that throw.  Or.... Illinois could do what teams with struggling offenses often do by running a trick play.  A lateral to Williams with a pass option is a low-risk, high reward play that would have given Illinois some momentum when it really needed it.  However, despite the fact that Illinois has the multi-talented Williams and Spann on the roster, not to mention the dangerous legs and arm of Coran Taylor, Tony Petersen has only called one trick play this year.  For a team that's struggling on offense that's a curious decision.  The game situation on Saturday cried out for something, anything, to break Illinois out.  Hopefully with the week off we'll see a wrinkle or two installed for the rest of the season.

 

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