The Wisconsin Badgers visited Ann Arbor and brought with them one of the craziest defenses in college football. One so complex and purposely odd that labeling it was dually confusing, as the label neither described what the Badgers were doing, and by giving the Badgers that label, it drew into question the label itself. Technically, the Badgers played a 3-4 defense, but watching Wisconsin on Saturday felt jarring. With so many players cutting, shifting, or dropping into coverage, it took only minutes to understand why opposing offenses struggle so much in adjusting to it, but as with many forms of apparent lunacy, within the chaos lied a plan.
On this play, wide receiver Jehu Chesson (86) and tight end Jake Butt (88) were brought across the formation. This shift elicited a response from Wisconsin. Safety Leo Musso (19), who was on Butt, shifted to being a high safety, which allowed safety D’Cota Dixon (14) to take on Butt. However, the motion also prompted linebackers T.J. Edwards (53) and Jack Cichy (48) to switch positions. Cichy had picked up on something and wanted to exploit it. At the snap, Cichy took off like a missile at left guard Ben Braden (71). The initial push was severe. Braden almost caved, but his recovery was admirable. He kept his shoulders square to Cichy and planted his right foot, creating a wedge that distributed Cichy’s own force back into him.
Braden survived, and quarterback Wilton Speight (3) completed the pass.
At first glance, the Cichy blitz felt innocent—just another linebacker rushing a gap, a rather brutal rush given the head start, but no more or less than an attempt to confuse and berate the Michigan offensive line. Except, by the end of the first quarter, the Badgers had brought another linebacker at Braden. By halftime, they had done it five times. By the end of the game, nine times—nine times, Braden had a linebacker running into him, targeting him with specific rushes, nearly all of them run out of the same package and when Jake Butt was on the opposite side of the formation.
The above play was only first blood in a calculated plan to tenderize Braden in hopes of exhausting him so he could be exploited later in the game. So, how did he fare? Were the Badgers able to expose him? In the first quarter, Braden held up well. By the second, he looked tired of it. He nearly missed on a linebacker, barely preventing a sack. In the third quarter, the Badgers’ plan to frustrate him finally paid off. On third and six at the Badgers’ 12-yard line, the defense confused Braden by sending the linebacker late instead of early. He chose to double team an outside defensive end instead of guarding his portion of the field, leaving the blitzing linebacker to running back De’Veon Smith. The mismatch was too much for Smith. Speights was forced out of the pocket and sacked, losing 9-yards.
The attempted field goal was a miss.
On the next drive, Braden had another breakdown. Like in the second quarter, the cutting linebacker—this time it was Edwards—came at Braden’s inside shoulder, sniffing out a run. Braden was unable to get his shoulders square on the defender, instead swiveling on his hips. He had no choice but to commit the hold or risk compromising the handoff.
Badgers’ head coach Paul Chryst had to be pleased. Here he was in a close game, a Michigan touchdown had been avoided, leading to a missed field goal, and on the next drive, due to Braden’s holding penalty, Michigan had to punt after a three-and-out. The plan was working. They had overwhelmed Braden, and the Badgers had a pathway into the backfield for their linebackers. As long as Braden kept it up, the Badgers had a chance.
But then, on the deciding drive of the game, Braden bounced back, and Michigan learned its lesson.
On the play before this one, 1st and 10, the offense had pulled an end-around with Jabrill Peppers, hoping to catch the Badgers sleeping. The play fell apart. Facing 2nd and 10, it was a pass rushing down, and the Badgers’ defense switched into their 3-4 look where they send a cutting linebacker. Of course, they sent the linebacker at Braden. Cichy got a head of steam, but Braden absorbed the initial blow. He squared up to Cichy, going underneath the linebacker’s pad level. Since running back De’Veon Smith (4) had gone to the edge to assist offensive tackle Erik Magnuson (78), the only barrier between Cichy and Speight was Braden. Braden could afford no errors. And he committed none. He held his own long enough for the pass to be thrown. The result of his effort was telling. On 3rd and 7, the Badgers opted not to send the extra linebacker.
On the next down, Michigan won the game, with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Henry Houden.
On this play, Braden caught a break. Michigan had finally diagnosed the cutting linebacker and decided to address it with the center. In three above examples, center Mason Cole (52) stayed with the nose guard, Olive Sagapolu (65) in the first and third examples and Alec James (57) in the second. This time, however, Cole rotated away from Sagapolu, sliding into the gap the linebackers were attacking. The shift confused Cichy, who stutter-stepped. Both Cichy’s delay and a fresh offensive lineman provided Speight the time he needed to stand in the pocket and go through his throwing motion, finally delivering an accurate downfield pass.
On this Saturday, a defense schemed its way to defeating the Wolverines. They saw one weakness they wanted to hit, and they hit it time and again. Teams do this for many reasons. Maybe they think the player is weak. Maybe attacking an area is what they do every week. Suffice it to say, Braden experienced the many levels and purposes of sending these charging linebackers. Wisconsin was not only thinking about getting to the football, they were trying to tire Braden, both mentally and physically. First, a charging 250lb man hurts. Braden will never complain, but it’s quite the blow. Second, it’s psychologically taxing. It takes a player out of the game plan. Sure, the Badgers only came at Braden nine times, but for every down of the game, Braden had to ask himself, “Are they bringing it this time? Am I ready for it?”
The Badgers learned that Ben Braden was neither physically or mentally weak. He took his licks and his ups-and-downs, but he never shrunk from the challenge, and was critical to Michigan’s ability to move the football.
Let’s just hope Braden was given an extra large bag of ice after this one.