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Film Room: Northwestern's Run Defense vs. Wisconsin's Run Offense

What can Northwestern do to limit Wisconsin's ground game?

Tom Lynn

Sure, Northwestern's defense is good. Its run defense, in particular, is especially good. But do you know what else is good? Better than anything Northwestern's faced this season by a longshot?

This guy, with these guys blocking for him.

Yes, Melvin Gordon and his band of overgrown mammoths often referred to as "offensive linemen" are coming to Evanston.

And with them they bring the second-best rushing attack in the nation.

With a running back that good and an offensive line that outweighs Northwestern's defensive line by 45.44 pounds per player, what can the Wildcats' 16th-ranked run defense do to at least slow down Wisconsin?

First, let's look at a fundamental element of Wisconsin's run game: pulling.

The crazy thing about the Badgers' offensive linemen is that they're not just huge, but they have really great feet and are quite athletic. They do certain things and make certain moves that men their size just shouldn't be able to. This run concept has worked wonders for Wisconsin over the years and is nothing novel to football. It's a very basic concept that punishes teams for not staying disciplined in their lanes and for not having the defensive personnel to occupy multiple blockers.

Take a look at this play from Wisconsin's victory over South Florida:

3Q WIS M. Gordon run for 10 yds for a 1ST down

Dallas Lewallen (no. 73) pulls from his left guard spot over to the right side, pitting four blockers against four defenders creating a gaping hole for Gordon to burst through. Lewallen is able to reach the second level of the defense and takes out a South Florida linebacker.

Here's a look at a similar play:

Gordon's 43-Yard Dash

The two plays are basically identical with the second having a tight end set off of the line. Like the first play, Lewallen pulls to the right side and takes out two South Florida defenders, paving the way for a big run by Gordon.

What makes these plays so special is Gordon's ability to cutback. In both examples, Gordon is able to use his vision to see that all the action and pursuit is moving toward the right side and he quickly jumps back to the left creating an even bigger seam. Gordon's ability to find holes in the second and third level of the defense is unparalleled. Another thing that makes these plays so lethal is that getting Gordon to the ground is an extremely difficult task in itself.

With all of that being said, it doesn't mean that these plays are unstoppable. During the first half of that game, South Florida held Wisconsin to just three points and kept Gordon under wraps.

Here are two examples of how to bust a play when a lineman pulls:

1Q WIS M. Gordon run for -2 yds

2Q USF M. Gordon run for 0 yds,M. Gordon fumbled, forced by E. Watson, recovered by SFla N. Godwin,Gordon, Melvin rush for no gain to the SOUFLA5, fumble for

The key guy on these plays is the defensive lineman lined up against the pulling offensive lineman. In both cases, it's South Florida's Elkino Watson. Watson recognizes the pulling guard so quickly and makes such a rapid first step that the linemen responsible for him cannot block him in time and he's able to get to Gordon behind the line.

For just a split second, Wisconsin's offensive line has holes and it will be up to Northwestern's defensive line to take advantage of them.

There were some instances against Penn State where Northwestern showed the capability to disrupt Wisconsin's bread and butter play. Greg Kuhar's fourth down stop, for example:

While it's funny to point out that two Penn State offensive linemen blocked each other on this play, Kuhar does exactly what he should do when the man in front of him pulls. As soon as the right guard moves, Kuhar is too quick for either the right tackle or center to block him and he bursts into the backfield.

Another thing Northwestern did well against Penn State's pulling linemen was that the linebackers beat the pulling lineman to the hole, clogging it up before any blockers could clear it out.

That's exactly what Anthony Walker did to tackle Penn State's Zach Zwinak behind the line of scrimmage. He beat the pulling guard (No. 59) through the hole, preventing Zwinak from going anywhere.

With the addition of Walker, the speed of Northwestern's linebackers is the defense's biggest asset and it could prove vital against Wisconsin.

But it wasn't all good for Northwestern against the run on Saturday. There were some really concerning things, such as this play:

This is a play that should have resulted in a minimal gain that ended up gaining about eight yards and against Wisconsin, plays like these could go for a touchdown. Ifeadi Odenigbo is lined up against a pulling tackle and instead of attacking the open gap, he runs around the outside of the formation and jogs toward the ball carrier in a lackluster manner. On the other side, Xavier Washington completely overpursues and runs right by the running back.

For all the talent Odenigbo and Washington seemingly have, the two young players have yet to learn how to stay disciplined in the run game. Odenigbo is probably more to blame for this issue on a consistent basis as he rarely pays attention to his run responsibilities and is often too focused on getting up the field as fast as possible. For that reason, Pat Fitzgerald said at his press conference Monday that Odenigbo "needs to get better in the run game" and that he may not see too much of the field unless that part of his game improves.

Containing Wisconsin's run game is definitely a tall task, but Northwestern has the ability to do it if they are disciplined and take advantage of opportunities. It will be a classic speed vs. power matchup in which Northwestern will need to have a good showing if they hope to keep the game close.