Badgers' big O-line looks to dominate Ducks up the middle
LOS ANGELES - Wisconsin's offensive line looks a bit like something created in a Soviet Union lab during the Cold War. The unit is filled with monsters who average 6-5, 323 pounds. The Badgers have headline players in quarterback Russell Wilson and running back Montee Ball, but the line has been critical to both players' success. And when Wisconsin faces Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Monday, the O-line could be the most important group that steps onto the field for either team.
'Our O-line has been a strong point,' Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says. 'It's a focal point of our game plan. As a head coach, I really build around their strength. If our O-line plays well, we traditionally play well. If our O-line doesn't play well, we traditionally don't play well.'
The Badgers historically have had tremendous offensive linemen who have blocked for star running backs, including 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne. Knowing the men whose footsteps they are following in gives the 2011 group extra motivation.
'It's such a tradition here at Wisconsin with the O-line,' says 6-4, 315-pound senior right guard Kevin Zeitler. 'You want to be a part of that. The desire to be a part of that tradition to live up to that expectation of the O-line makes you work harder and go faster than you thought you could.'
In living up to their predecessors, the Wisconsin line has carved its own identity of strength and power this season.
'Our biggest strength is strength,' center Peter Konz says. 'We've got a lot of guys who can squat over 500 pounds, a lot of guys who can bench over 400 pounds. What we do in the weight room is just phenomenal.'
The sheer size, power and strength of the Badgers' line becomes even more of a factor as games progress. As defensive linemen are hit time and time again, senior right tackle Josh Oglesby, 6-7, 330 pounds, says a defensive unit often cracks.
'(Our size) gives us an advantage to where we can really wear on an opponent and just sort of lean on them for four quarters and try to break them down,' Oglesby says.
Konz has not played since Nov. 12, when he dislocated his left ankle against Minnesota. But the 6-5, 315-pound junior has said that he will be ready to play against Oregon.
If Konz does, he knows that the Badgers' line must play to its strengths. Oregon's defensive line is outmatched size-wise, but the unit has a good speed. While the Badgers may not be able to beat the Ducks to the edge, Konz thinks that Wisconsin can neutralize Oregon's speed by sending plays up the middle.
'If we're trying to do a speed option, if we're trying to go sideways a lot, they're going to be very good,' Konz says. 'They're used to that in the Pac-12, where a lot of teams run a spread option offense. But if we get them up the middle, there's nowhere really (for the D-linemen) to run.'
The speed of Oregon's defensive line will still present challenges. The Badgers' O-line will have to be as disciplined as possible and not allow Oregon's D-linemen to confuse them with pass-rush moves.
'Anytime you have a really quick guy, they have a whole bunch of moves, they can be jukie,' Zeitler says. 'Then they can just run straight up the middle at you. It's just a matter of us being disciplined and ready to react.'
Throughout 2011, the Badgers have been equally effective in run blocking and pass blocking.
The line has given Wilson plenty of time to throw, allowing just 23 sacks.
'The offensive line is extremely talented,' Wilson says. 'They're very intelligent guys, they're good guys who believe in one another. They work hard every day. Their excellence is due to the hard work they put in on a daily basis. That's the exciting thing about these guys.'
The push that the line is able to get has opened up huge gaps that allowed the running game to average 5.48 yards per carry and spring-boarded Ball into being a Heisman Trophy finalist.
'They do a great job of creating holes for me and giving me the opportunities, and I do a great job of capitalizing on the opportunities and making big plays out of them,' Ball says.
Oregon's losses under coach Chip Kelly have usually happened when the Ducks' opponent has kept the ball away from Oregon's high-powered offense by dominating time of possession. Oglesby says that stat will be important, but that keeping the Ducks from scoring back-to-back unanswered touchdowns will be even more critical.
'We have to drive it down the field, and if it takes up a lot of time that will be good,' Oglesby says. 'But the biggest thing is we have to score. We can't not score on one drive because then they'll probably score twice.'
Even without pads, the Badgers' linemen look like prototypical NFL players. Wilson believes that someday soon, many of the men who have been blocking for him will be playing at the next level.
'A lot of those guys are going to have long, long careers, and I'm excited about those opportunities for them,' Wilson says.
Before they have an opportunity to play on NFL Sundays, the Wisconsin offensive linemen will have an opportunity to make an impression on the nation Monday against Oregon. And if the Badgers' players with the ball in their hands grab the headlines on Tuesday, it will be because of the monsters clearing the way for them.
'We know that games are won and lost in the trenches,' Oglesby says. 'We're going to go out and try to dominate the line as best we can.'