How Ohio State made Wisconsin football's best defenders nonfactors

How Ohio State made Wisconsin football’s best defenders nonfactors

Outside linebacker Nick Herbig, nose tackle Keeanu Benton and quarterback Graham Mertz talk with reporters after Wisconsin’s 52-21 loss to No. 3 Ohio State Saturday night in Ohio Stadium.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig told reporters Monday about how they viewed playing No. 3 Ohio State.

The game was a “draft-changing” opportunity, they said, capable of boosting their draft stock if they played well. They knew their University of Wisconsin football team’s primetime matchup against the unbeaten Buckeyes would have many eyeballs on it, including those of NFL scouts. Ten individuals representing eight NFL franchises were listed on seating charts in the press box.

But Benton and Herbig, UW’s defensive captains, were left without a good explanation for what just happened when they addressed reporters late Saturday night at Ohio Stadium. The Badgers’ defense was brushed aside from the start and Ohio State ran away with a 52-21 victory, which matches the worst defeat in UW coach Paul Chryst’s tenure.

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Only Benton, Herbig and Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz spoke with reporters after the blowout. The Badgers’ (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) captains said they were the ones who should address the loss.

“Staying together,” Benton said when asked how the Badgers can rally back after a nationally televised rout. “That’s what we’ve got to do. We’re the heart of our team right now.”

Added Herbig: “Being the captains of this football team, you’ve got to take full responsibility (for) this loss and I wouldn’t want to be with no other group of guys right now.”

Ohio State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) recognized Benton and Herbig’s importance to UW’s defense and schemed them out of the picture. The result was the most points ever allowed by a defense coordinated by Jim Leonhard, and a unit looking for answers.

The way Ohio State coach and offensive play caller Ryan Day took Herbig — the best pass-rusher on UW’s roster and overall their most disruptive defensive player — out of the picture was simply more evidence that Day is one of the best offensive coaches in college football .

Day used UW’s defensive rules against it in regards to Herbig’s alignment, oftentimes taking him off the line of scrimmage and preventing him from getting a clean rush on obvious passing downs. The Buckeyes put three receivers on the wide side of the field, Herbig’s side, on most second-and-longs and most third downs that weren’t short-yardage situations. In UW’s nickel defense, Herbig has to split the difference between the tackle and the furthest inside receiver of the three-receiver side.

Badgers defensive lineman Keeanu Benton (95) tackles Ohio State running back Dallan Hayden in the first half Saturday. Benton and fellow team captain Nick Herbig were effectively schemed out of the game by Ohio State.

Associated Press

When Herbig occupies that space, it takes away multiple quick routes from that inside receiver and allows the safety who will usually be responsible for the inside receiver to remain deep off the snap. But with Herbig off the line in obvious passing situations, OSU quarterback CJ Stroud had all the time he needed to shred UW’s secondary to the tune of 281 yards and five touchdowns on 17 completions.

“Yeah, I mean, that could have been their game plan,” Herbig sad. “I’m not too sure what they’re planning over there but that’s what it felt like.”

Chryst said OSU’s scheme as a whole did well in keeping Stroud clean.

“There wasn’t much (opportunity for pressure) and there’s a couple of times we got some pressure, and he actually made some good plays out (of it),” Chryst said. “But I think that they did a good job of getting the ball out … really not a ton of time for the rush to get there.”

Outside linebacker Nick Herbig (far left), nose tackle Keeanu Benton (middle) and quarterback Graham Mertz talk with reporters after Wisconsin’s 52-21 loss to No. 3 Ohio State Saturday night inside Ohio Stadium.

One of Benton’s greatest skills as an interior defensive lineman is his ability to create penetration and force plays to change direction with his pursuit of the ball. That usually makes tailbacks slow down and allows UW’s linebackers to make tackles. Benton has just 55 tackles in 36 career games, but teammates from the Badgers’ defenses the past three years — some of the best in college football — rave about Benton’s impact in the middle.

But Ohio State eliminated Benton’s value with stretch run concepts and by effectively double-teaming the Janesville native. Stretch runs prioritize offensive linemen creating creases and tailbacks reading them correctly. Sometimes that means following the blocks out wide, others it means cutting up field or back across the formation. All of these plans essentially kept Benton from being able to make many plays. He finished with five tackles, but none for a loss. In fact, no Badgers defender had a tackle for loss.

TreVeyon Henderson (121 yards) and Miyan Williams (101) became the first pair of rushers to tally 100 or more rushing yards against UW in one game since Oregon’s LaMichael James and De’Anthony Thomas in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

“Their stretch game is pretty good, you know?” Benton said. “We left some stuff on the table as well as a defensive line. It’s just stuff we’ve got to work on and stuff we got to move past to become a better team.”

The Buckeyes also used the Badgers’ aggressiveness in the front seven against them early on.

Both touchdowns tight end Cade Stover scored in the first quarter were on misdirection plays that exposed UW’s inside linebackers’ inexperience. Stover faked as though he was run blocking to his left before leaking back to the right side of the field for a wide-open score from 13 yards out to put OSU up 14-0. Stover capped the Buckeyes’ next drive with a 2-yard score on which he faked a run block before ending up behind two UW defenders who sprinted after Stroud on a designed rollout.

UW won’t face a team with as much talent as OSU the rest of the regular season, and the Badgers’ odds of beating the Buckeyes were slim entering the game. The only path they had to a victory was the defense playing well and keeping the team in the game. That hope seemed extinguished with 3 minutes, 55 seconds left in the first quarter and the Buckeyes leading 21-0.

Chryst said the unit didn’t divide on itself despite its worst performance in ages, and he trusts they’ll bounce back.

“They kept going … they were together on it,” Chryst said. “It is a team sport and we all got beat tonight.”


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