MADISON, Wis. — Any Wisconsin fan that has watched Badgers football the past 25 years understands that possessing a physically imposing, dominant offensive line is one of the staples to the team’s sustained success. By building a game plan around the big boys up front, Wisconsin simply can wear out opponents and inflict punishment on the ground.
But two years ago, something unusual happened in Madison. Wisconsin’s linemen had the size but not the necessary experience or continuity. And the results weren’t particularly pretty.
Wisconsin ranked 10th in the Big Ten that season in rushing offense at 150.3 yards per game. Starting running back Corey Clement spent most of the season recovering from sports hernia surgery, which didn’t help, but the offensive line could hardly generate a push. In the end, Badgers quarterback Joel Stave set a single-season school record with 370 pass attempts.
“It’s definitely a slap in the face because that’s just not how you want it to go, especially at the University of Wisconsin,” said Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter, a redshirt freshman on the 2015 unit. “You want to run the football. Dropping back that much, it just puts you in a tough spot as an offensive lineman because it’s definitely easier to run block than pass protect, no doubt. Having Joel throw it so many times was never fun.”
Added right guard Beau Benzschawel: “Looking back on it, it’s like, ‘Wow, we were that bad we had to keep throwing the ball?'”
Wisconsin rotated through seven different starting combinations on the line in 2015. In a home game against Northwestern, the Badgers rushed 26 times for minus-26 yards because Stave was sacked 5 times. But the turning point came a week later in the regular season finale at Minnesota. Wisconsin started four redshirt freshmen on the offensive line and shifted Benzschawel from right tackle to right guard.
The Badgers carried 62 times for 257 yards with 4 touchdowns in a 31-21 victory against Minnesota, and the line found its swagger.
“I feel like that game we just had a different mentality going in,” Benzschawel said. “We definitely had to prove ourselves because the whole team was counting on us. From that moment on, we just kind of realized how much control we have over this team’s success. Since then, we’ve tried to progressively get better every day, and we’re at where we’re at now.”
No. 5 Wisconsin (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) makes its return to Minnesota (5-6, 2-6) for the regular-season finale Saturday. And the offensive line the Gophers will face this time around is as confident and dominant as any in the country.
In fact, Wisconsin’s offensive line was named on Tuesday as one of seven semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given to the best O-line in the nation. The other units are from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Stanford. The award is based on six criteria: toughness, effort, teamwork, consistency, technique and finishing.
The Badgers’ unit has embodied those characteristics this season. Wisconsin ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing offense at 239.3 yards per game. The linemen are quick to point out that having a running back as talented as freshman Jonathan Taylor, a Doak Walker Award finalist, has significantly boosted those numbers. But the holes the line has created are just as important.
“I remember camp this year was a grind knowing what play is coming and still not being able to fit it perfectly,” Badgers inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “They’re just strong and smart. Every game I feel like there’s some O-lineman out in the open field knocking some other dude down. You don’t see that often.”
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Deiter and Benzschawel are the two players who have most used that 2015 season as a springboard for their success. They have developed as leaders on the line and have started all 11 games at their respective positions for Wisconsin this season. Benzschawel was a preseason first-team All-American selection by USA Today. But the line’s success wouldn’t be possible without everyone working together as a unit.
Right tackle David Edwards, who has started all 11 games, was an ESPN.com midseason All-American. Redshirt freshman center Tyler Biadasz has started all 11 games, Jon Dietzen has started 9 games at left guard, and Micah Kapoi has filled in for Dietzen. Reserve Jason Erdmann has demonstrated his versatility by playing both guard and center.
“We try to make the game as physical as possible,” Dietzen said. “One thing we talk about is bringing the fight to them and setting the tone. I think it’s definitely something you can feel, especially games like Iowa and this upcoming game. They’re going to be big, physical games. That’s something we take pride in.”
Edwards acknowledged continuity has played a major factor for the line this season, even as several players have dealt with injuries. Deiter fought through a right ankle injury, Benzschawel left a Week 2 game against Florida Atlantic with a right leg injury and Biadasz suffered a left leg injury two weeks ago against Iowa. None of them missed a start. Dietzen’s ankle issues date back to before the season, but he has persevered.
“There’s something to be said about guys just playing one spot next to the same guy, getting the same reps,” Edwards said. “Just as time goes on, I think everybody gets better with that.”
Benzschawel said the O-line’s biggest adjustment was in its collective preparation. Wisconsin offensive line coach Joe Rudolph has implemented a weekly “one thing” teaching tool, which is meant for the group to focus on one thing in the run game and one thing in pass protection the Badgers can improve on from the previous game. Rudolph noted he was pleased that players aren’t content with simply doing their job but instead want to be great.
“I think I saw somewhere that someone called them like the rolling tsunami of cheese or something like that,” Badgers outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “That’s definitely an interesting way to say it. But our five O-linemen up front are a force. I’m glad I don’t have to go against them on game day.”
Deiter and Benzschawel can appreciate the progress Wisconsin’s offensive line has made in two seasons. With the Badgers chasing a potential national championship, they realize they’ll have to be even more dominant in the games to come.
“It hasn’t happened overnight,” Deiter said. “It’s taken a lot of time. And we can’t get complacent because we can still be better. We’ll never say it’s perfect. I really like how much better we’ve gotten, and we all acknowledge the work it took to get there. But it’s not done.”