It's not a secret that the Wisconsin Badgers take pride in running the football. Bruising running backs, game managing quarterbacks and a huge offensive line were staples of Wisconsin's offense under Barry Alvarez and the tradition continued when Paul Chryst stayed on as offensive coordinator under former head coach Bret Bielema.
But when new head coach Gary Andersen took over in late December, rumors started swirling that he would change the offensive formula at Wisconsin. Andersen's Utah State team used a spread offense with Chuckie Keeton at quarterback, but Andersen insisted that he wouldn't stray to far from the scheme that helped the Badgers win three consecutive Big Ten titles.
But Andersen cut his coaching chops on defense, so his offensive coordinator will have a large role in determining how the Badgers will attack other teams. Andersen brought Andy Ludwig in from San Diego State as his new offensive coordinator, who has a reputation for running a pro-style offense and was a rumored candidate for his current job a year earlier when Chryst left for Pittsburgh.
Sometimes it's hard to separate reputation from reality, so I went back to the tape of the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl to see how Ludwig ran his offense at San Diego State. The Aztecs lost 23-6 to BYU, but there were more interesting things to look at besides the final score.
Specifically I charted Ludwig's play calls and the personnel packages he used during the game, which gives us some insight into the style Wisconsin fans can expect to see this year. It's important to remember that the Poinsettia Bowl is just a snapshot in time and not a full representation of San Diego State's offense or Ludwig's history as an offensive coordinator, but at the same time I think it's fair to look at the last game he called before he joined the Badgers.
For the most part, Ludwig's offense did have a lot of resemblances to the pro-style schemes Chryst and Canada used. The offense was balanced as a whole against BYU, as the Aztecs ran the ball 34 times and looked to pass 33 times. There was a significant amount of tight end movement, especially where they would motion off the line of scrimmage and over to the strong side of the formation where they could help block on a running play. The Wisconsin tight ends should be happy with Ludwig running the show, because I counted just two plays where Ludwig did not have a tight end on the field.
Eighty-six percent of San Diego State's plays were run out of four different personnel packages, all of which had at least one tight end on the field. Ludwig used a 21 personnel package the most against the Cougars. That's pretty traditional I-formation football, since 21 personnel features a running back, a fullback and a tight end along with two wide receivers. The Aztecs ran the ball 17 of 20 times while in a 21 set, and it was the most common look they gave BYU on first downs. If you include their 22 set (two backs and two tight ends), the Aztecs used a pro-style look on 70 percent of their first downs.
The Aztecs also ran the ball 63 percent of the time on first and second downs, but were very ineffective on third downs against BYU. They converted just two of 16 third-downs in the game, passing 87.5 percent of the time. Ludwig used a three-receiver set (11 personnel) on 10 of 16 chances, and passed heavily out of that set as a whole. The Aztecs threw the ball on 17 of 18 plays while in 11 personnel.
One interesting note is that the Aztecs didn't get many chances to convert short downs in the game. BYU allowed them just seven tries with three or fewer yards to go, and the Aztecs passed the ball on five of those chances. It would be unfair to draw too much from that and say Ludwig needs to run the ball more on short downs, but it's something to keep an eye on. It could be that Ludwig thought BYU wouldn't expect a pass on those short downs, and they did convert two of those opportunities into a first down.
And while Ludwig's 21 and 11 personnel sets were good indicators of a run or a pass play, he did break the trend a few times by calling for a pass on short downs in personnel groupings that suggested they were going to run the ball. The Aztecs completed an 8-yard pass on fourth and short out of a 23 package, which caught BYU off guard and gave them the first down. They also looked to pass three times out of the four times they used a 13 package, which caught BYU napping a little bit.
Again, San Diego State's performance in the Poinsettia Bowl does not define Ludwig's offensive tendencies, and he'll be using different and sometimes better players at Wisconsin. But I think it's fair to say that the Badgers won't be shifting far away from their patented offensive formula. Ludwig told me after one spring practice that he borrowed a lot of concepts from the Badgers and Chryst, and that was definitely easy to see as I watched the Aztecs play.
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