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Up to the challenge
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - When T.J. Woods first stepped on the University of Wisconsin campus early this year the offensive line coach was impressed with the group he inherited.
“I think anytime you get a chance to coach great athletes, that are as big as these guys are, it’s fun,” Woods said on Tuesday.
While physically impressive the group was also relatively inexperienced. Woods, who came with UW coach Gary Andersen from Utah State, had to replace multi-year starters in Ricky Wagner and Travis Fredrick.
As he hit fall camp the only full-time starter that was playing the same position was right tackle Rob Havenstein. At left tackle was Ryan Groy, who played much of his career at left guard, while two players that had never started a game – junior Dallas Lewallen and redshirt freshman Dan Voltz – were slotted to step in at left guard and center, respectively. And at right guard was junior Kyle Costigan – who had essentially one year of experience playing offensive line.
Injuries during fall camp forced a change with sophomore Tyler Marz sliding in at left tackle and Groy going back to left guard with Lewallen moving to center.
It’s still a work in progress but as the Badgers head to Iowa this Saturday to take on a very physical front-seven the questions surrounding the line are starting to disappear.
“It was a challenge there,” Woods admitted. “That’s the thing about offensive line. You can drill all you want. You can watch them go through the (blocking) cage until your eyes bleed but the most valuable thing for an offensive linemen is experience. Getting in the mix. Doing it when it counts and learning as you go. I think they’ve done a tremendous job of that.”
And they’ve done it under pressure. As an offensive lineman at Wisconsin you’re expected to dominate. That stems back to the years of former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez, extended into the tenure of Bret Bielema, and is something Andersen has made a priority. To have the running game Wisconsin wants and needs, it all starts with the offensive line.
“I think there is some added pressure, but I think if you’re a competitor you welcome that. That’s what you want,” Woods said. “You want to continue the tradition and you want to better the tradition. And that’s what these guys are trying to do. We just have to keep improving every week. I think we’re doing all right now.”
Marz probably feels the most pressure – both because of his role as the blindside protector for quarterback Joel Stave and the players that have come before him.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “Especially position wise there have been a lot of guys that have played left tackle (well). Big name guys that are in the NFL right now. Even just previous (linemen in general.) Travis (Frederick). There’s a whole line of them. It puts a lot of pressure on us.”
And they’re thriving under that pressure right now. Wisconsin owns the best running attack in the Big Ten and eighth best in the country at 396.9 yards per game. They’ve also kept Stave upright for most of the season, ranking fourth in the conference in sacks allowed. And while many factors go into those totals it all starts with the guys up front.
“Yeah, I have,” Woods answered when asked if he’s seen improvement from the group over the course of the season. “I don’t think by any means we’re where we want to be. I think there’s definitely room for improvement. And that’s what we come (to practice) to focus on. We don’t focus on what we’ve done. We try to focus on what we’re going to do. How we can improve the things we put on tape that might not be want we want. That’s kind of our focus.”
The defenses they’ve faced haven’t made it easy for them. Groy said they haven’t had many cookie cutter defenses through the first seven games of the season. They’ve faced defensive fronts that are continually shifting and stunting – trying to use their athleticism to trip up the Badgers. That ends this week against the Hawkeyes.
“A lot of teams try to do the movement to beat us. They try to use that to beat you,” Marz said. “This is more similar to us. A ground and pound type of game. It’s going to be real physical. I think a lot of guys are looking forward to that.”
But just because the Badgers know where the defenders will be doesn’t make it any easier. The Hawkeyes boast a pair of big defensive tackles in junior Carl Davis (6-5, 315) and junior Louis Trinca-Pasat (6-3, 290). They also have stout defensive ends in their 4-3 scheme with sophomore Drew Ott (6-4, 265) and Kimberly-native Mike Hardy (6-5, 275), who had an offer to play at Wisconsin and made his first start of the season against Northwestern last weekend.
“I think this will be, if not the biggest, one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had so far,” Woods said. “They’re physical. They’re big. They want to get in the fight. We welcome that challenge. I think that’s what you want. You don’t want guys zipping and zapping. You want them lined up saying, ‘here we are’ and that’s what they do. It’ll be fun.”
But it’s not just the defensive line that will present problems for the Badgers offensive line and running backs. The Hawkeyes defense, which has struggled the past two games to stop the run, giving up 225 yards to Northwestern and 273 yards to Ohio State, still has three talented linebackers that have been productive this year.
Seniors Anthony Hitchens, James Morris and Christian Kirksey are among the top 12 tacklers in the Big Ten. And Morris was named the defensive player of the week in the conference after recording eight tackles, including 2.5 for loss, against the Wildcats.
It’s that front seven that deserves a lot of credit for allowing just five runs of 20 or more yards this year – something the Badgers offense has thrived on. Few teams in the country have been better at breaking off big gains on the ground than Wisconsin as their 22 runs of 20 or more yards ranks fourth in the nation.
“If you’re starting in that front-seven you’re a good player. That’s the bottom line,” Woods said. “All seven of those guys have caught my eye. Have done certain things to make me recognize them. And I think as a defensive player that’s what you’re trying to do. And they all do that. They play gap sound defense and they play physical and they make plays. They get off blocks. They do all the things you want defensive linemen and linebackers to do. And they play the game the right way.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin