MADISON - Did Western Illinois give other teams a blueprint to stopping the running game for the University of Wisconsin?
Despite holding Melvin Gordon to 38 yards on 17 carries and largely limiting the Badgers’ ground attack (167 yards) while the game was still close, they did so at the expense of their pass defense, which along with their ineptitude on offense, led to a 37-3 loss. On a number of occasions they put as many as nine defenders near the line of scrimmage, leaving their secondary to deal with UW's pass catchers.
There are a number of ways to exploit that type of defense and Wisconsin did, especially from the second quarter on. One of those ways is via what they call an “ammo screen”. It seems like a simple play but execution is needed, and they were able to do that on Saturday. UW ran the play six times and picked up 58 yards. Below is a look at the final time they used it, a 10-yard touchdown to Alex Erickson:
1) The Badgers are lined up in the I formation with wide receiver Alex Erickson in the slot to left and another wide receiver, Jordan Fredrick, lined up to his left.
When quarterback Tanner McEvoy comes to the line, he sees the Leathernecks in their base 4-3 defense. Western Illinois has eight players within three yards of the line of scrimmage, so it essentially becomes a 4-4 defense with safety Jonathon Rollins (No. 4) serving as a fourth linebacker.
To the top of the screen you can see two other defenders – cornerback Richard Chungong (No. 3) and safety David McDaniel (No. 22) – playing off and the final defender, who’s not on the screen but whose shadow can be seen, is shaded to the far left of the defensive formation.
When McEvoy sees this type of defense, he has the option to follow through with the run play called in the huddle or stand up and toss it to Erickson.
"If it’s open, he’ll throw it. If it’s not, we’ll run the ball," Fredrick said of the play. "It’s definitely at the line. It gives us some options, which is great. If you’re going to overplay the screens, then we’re just going to run the ball."
2) In this instance, McEvoy decides to go with the screen. And it's an easy decision considering the ball is on the right hash mark and all but two of the Leathernecks' defenders are focused on the run.
On the snap, everyone runs the play called in the huddle, and the run action draws a lot of attention. All of the linebackers have their eyes focused on fullback Austin Ramesh and running back Melvin Gordon.
While they are doing that, McEvoy pops up and sees Erickson fading towards the sideline with no defender near him. Fredrick, meanwhile, is looking inside to see if it was a run or if the screen was coming.
3) As the ball is in the air, Fredrick is positioning himself to block Chungong. He's got a couple options to get it done. If the defender is coming at him fast, he can shoot out and dive at his legs, which he did several times earlier in the game. This time, Chungong is not sprinting at Fredrick, so he slows and prepares to put himself in between the defender and Erickson.
"It's kind of been my niche since day one really, coming here and that's kind of how I saw the field initially and that's how I want to keep playing," Fredrick said of his blocking skills. "Especially when you're not getting the ball thrown towards you often, you have to block for your fellow wideouts. You see Alex had a great game, I'm just glad to be a part of it."
Meanwhile, back inside, most of the front-seven still believe it's a run play and are in no position to help if the defensive backs are able to force the play back inside.
4) Erickson catches the pass in stride and has an option to either go inside the block or outside. Based on Fredrick's block, though, it's clear the right decision is to go outside. Having that option led to the safety, McDaniel, taking a poor angle on the play. If he takes the proper one, or if his corner forces the play back inside, it may not end up as a touchdown.
5) Fredrick did a nice job of getting the block but not holding it too long. When a defensive back tries to disengage from a blocker, and the blocker doesn't let go, it often leads to a holding call. But Fredrick was able to keep his hands inside where it's more difficult to see if he's holding on. The block allows Erickson, who has underrated quickness and speed, to get around the corner and head for the endzone.
"All that credit has to go to Jordan," Erickson said. "You watched it. He took care of his guy and my job was easy. Catch the ball and get north."
6) A few steps later Erickson was scoring the first touchdown of his college career. He finished with 10 catches, including five on these ammo screens, as the Badgers were able to undress a defense intent on not letting Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement beat them. That's something they may be forced to do on a regular basis this season.