MADISON, Wis. — Rare are the college football seasons in which injuries don’t take a toll on a team. The hope is that they won’t ravage one position group to the point of rendering the unit incapable of success.
Wisconsin’s offensive line is far from panic in that area. But two games into the season, the Badgers face the prospect of playing without their top two guards.
Left guard Jon Dietzen (right leg) and right guard Beau Benzschawel (right leg) were listed as questionable Monday on the team’s preliminary injury report. Given their uncertain status, the O-line may be forced to reshuffle before No. 10 Wisconsin (2-0) plays at BYU (1-2) on Saturday.
The line has been a major key to Wisconsin’s ground attack, which ranks 14th nationally in rushing yards per game (295.5). How the Badgers respond if Dietzen, Benzschawel or both players aren’t healthy enough to contribute will be vital.
“I think it’ll be tough to replace those guys if they can’t go,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “There’s still a lot of time left. We’ll see what develops. But I think we’ve got guys who can go in and play just as good as they have. … I think we have the answers if they’re not ready to go.”
Benzschawel, a redshirt junior, has played in 24 games with 22 starts at right guard. He started all 14 games for the Badgers last season and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the league’s coaches. He was so highly thought of entering 2017 that USA Today named him to its preseason All-America first team.
Benzschawel suffered his injury in the second quarter Saturday against Florida Atlantic after Wisconsin was stuffed on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Redshirt junior Micah Kapoi filled in for Benzschawel the rest of the game. Kapoi has started 13 career games, with nine at left guard and four at right guard.
Dietzen, a redshirt sophomore, underwent offseason surgery on his right ankle and missed time during fall camp. He has played in 12 games with nine starts at left guard. If Dietzen can’t play and Kapoi needs to shift to right guard, redshirt sophomore Jason Erdmann appears to be next in line.
Erdmann, who played in 13 games last season, shared first-team reps with Kapoi at left guard when Dietzen sat out portions of fall camp.
“We’ll see how Beau and Jon progress this week,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. “Certainly got to keep working with and developing, whether it’s Erds or whoever it may be that has to go to make sure they’re ready and confident in what we’re doing and themselves to help our team.”
Wisconsin also has other potential options should the Badgers require them. Deiter has now played center, left guard and left tackle in his career at Wisconsin. Of his 29 career starts, 11 have come at left guard. Deiter said he didn’t anticipate moving to guard this week. But in the event Deiter did change positions, he said right tackle David Edwards likely would shift over to left tackle, and backup Patrick Kasl would take over at right guard.
“We know that if it happened, we would be OK because we have a lot of guys that have played a lot of different positions,” Deiter said. “So nothing should be super foreign to anyone.”
The cohesiveness of an offensive line generally stems from an ability to play together for multiple games. Deiter said any position shift in the lead-up to the BYU game would ideally require the entire week to feel comfortable with a new unit.
Regardless of which players are in the game, however, the Badgers remain confident in what they have.
“You can’t look at it as, ‘Oh, man, our starter went down. Now this guy’s got to come in,’ ” Badgers wide receiver Jazz Peavy said. “Usually it’s, ‘This guy went down. All right, we’ve got him coming in. No big deal. He knows his job. He knows what he’s got to do and he knows how to handle himself, too.’
“Whoever it is that’s stepping up and whatever position it’s been for this team since I’ve been here, it’s never been a drop-off. So I definitely always have confidence in those guys.”
The performance of Wisconsin’s offensive line thus far has been a mixed bag. Despite the Badgers’ rushing totals, Deiter hasn’t been satisfied with the unit’s consistency. When asked to grade the offensive line’s performance from last Saturday, Deiter said a C-plus or a B-minus. Most notably, Wisconsin was unable to score on Florida Atlantic despite facing a first-and-goal from the 6-yard line and having two tries to punch the ball in from the 1.
Chryst noted Badgers offensive coordinator and O-line coach Joe Rudolph showed the unit film on Monday from practice last Wednesday in which the line didn’t play with a low-enough pad level during a rep. The same problem showed up during the Florida Atlantic game and cost Wisconsin in its goal-line situation.
The film review provided an important lesson for an offensive line still trying to find its groove. And that won’t change no matter who plays Saturday.
“If you don’t value those practice reps and you’re missing it in practice, then it’s going to happen in a game,” Deiter said. “It seems so elementary to say, but it’s real. If you can’t get your pads down on a Wednesday practice, then sooner or later it’s going to show up and bite you in a game. So it’s good that it happened already. As an offense, we need to value every rep we get in practice and then be able to translate it to the game.”