Tom Herman and Dave Aranda will match wits on Saturday in Columbus, nearly 20 years after first meeting.
Paths cross again
By ZACH HEILPRIN
MADISON - The relationship between University of Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer has been well documented. Andersen served as Meyer’s defensive line coach when Utah went undefeated in 2004 and beat Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. But it’s another relationship among the two coaching staffs that could have a much bigger impact on the outcome of Saturday night’s clash in Columbus.
Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman have a long history that dates back to their days at California Lutheran – both coaches alma mater. In fact, Herman, who was an all-conference wide receiver in the mid-90’s, was Aranda’s recruiting host when the Wisconsin coach was trying to decide on a college. Aranda’s playing career was cut short due to injuries but he served as a graduate assistant for three years at the school
In 2000, the two were on opposite sidelines as graduate assistants as Herman’s Texas Longhorns beat Aranda’s Texas Tech Red Raiders, 29-17. It’s the only time the two have faced each other.
“He’s one up on me right now,” Aranda said on Wednesday. “It’s 1-0, Herman.”
The two men kept in touch and have leaned on each other in the years since.
“Up until (I took the UW job), Tom was always a guy that I would call to kind of get a feel on offense, where the trends were going,” Aranda said. “How are people blocking the zone-read? What do people want to see? What don’t they want to see? How are people blocking four to a side pressure? And Tom would always spill the beans. There was no reason not to. He was kind of my ‘in’ in terms of offensive thought. Obviously, we’re not having those talks anymore.”
No, instead Aranda is game planning to stop an offense that, under Meyer and Herman, is ranked 15th in the country in total yards, with 529-per game, and has put up an average of 52.5-points in their first four games this season – all wins – including 76 against Florida A&M last week. And they’ve done it without their starting quarterback.
Braxton Miller, the reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year and Heisman Trophy candidate, suffered a sprained left knee in the second game of the season against San Diego State, and has not played in the last two contests. In his place has been senior Kenny Guiton, who has filled in better than expected, throwing for 12 touchdowns in the last three games – a school record. But Meyer said on Wednesday that Miller will return to face the Badgers and will likely start. Still, Aranda and the Wisconsin coaching staff are preparing like they’ll see both guys – which does make game planning tougher.
“Whenever you have a set of calls or a game plan going in, you have lead calls and you have change up calls,” Aranda said. “There are only so many calls you can go into a game with in terms of what you can rep and master. So versus (Miller), there will be lead calls. The change up calls may be more geared toward the lead calls for (Guiton) and vice-versa.”
There aren’t significant differences between the two signal callers but UW coaches and players admitted there are some.
“His legs, of course,” freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton said when asked what stood out about Miller. “He’s very mobile. He extends plays. But for the most part, if you’re able to get pressure on him, he’ll tuck it down and just run. He’s looking to run. And that’s a thing you can see that’s pretty different from him and (Guiton). (Guiton) can extend plays and also throw the ball well. He’s really good with throwing the deep ball. Braxton, if there is pressure, he’s going to take off.”
The threat of a running quarterback is what Urban Meyer’s offense has been based on dating back to his days with Josh Harris at Bowling Green and Alex Smith at Utah. With the return of Miller – who is just 13 yards short of becoming the all-time leading rusher among quarterbacks in school history -- the likelihood of more zone-read, read-option and even some triple-option becomes a focus for the defense.
“We’ve got to be able to win upfront,” Aranda said. “It’s 11-on-11 football when it gets to that point. No. 1 (get push on the line) and get off blocks. You gain a defender that way. No. 2 would be accountability. Every man doing his (job). If you’re playing the A-gap, play the A-gap. If you’re playing dive, play dive. If you’re playing quarterback, play quarterback…And if you’re playing pitch, play pitch.”
In 2011, when Miller was a freshman and not running Meyer’s offense, he had some success against the Badgers defense, going for 99 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes 33-29 victory. But last year in Madison, Wisconsin’s defensive scheme kept Miller in check, limiting him to 48 yards on 23 carries. And though Ohio State came out with a 21-14 win, the Badgers accomplished what they wanted to.
“We took some lighter, faster guys and put them in to try and keep him in the pocket,” nose guard Beau Allen said this week. “I thought we kind of rattled him. And when he did escape the pocket we did a great job of tracking him down”
Though the idea might be similar in slowing Miller down, the personnel is likely to be different. Aranda said instead of the lighter and quicker players used by Bret Bielema’s staff last year, they plan to go big and leave three down linemen on the field for first, second and third down.
“We’re putting the defensive line front and center in this game,” Aranda said. “I think that was a decision early-on in terms of what direction are we going to go. Are we going to go small or are we going to go big. And our thought was to go big. That’s where the leadership is. That’s where the veterans are. Those are guys that have been in big games. And they’ve won big games. That’s where our best players are so we are featuring those guys.”
Part of that has to do with the success of the Buckeyes running game outside of the quarterback. Despite the absence of Miller for much of the season, Ohio State is ranked No. 6 in the country in rushing at 311-yards per game, and the 388 yards they had against Florida A&M last week was the highest single-game total in the last 18 years for the school. And though spread offenses are not usually thought of as being about the power running game, that’s exactly how OSU views itself.
“Everyone knows Wisconsin's run attack and how it's a power run game and how that's kind of what they do,” Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “There's a little bit of pride in that that's what we do, too. We are a power run football team. It may be out of different sets; it may not be with a bunch of tight ends and fullbacks and everyone on the field. But we are still going to run right at you and hit you in the mouth, and we are going to run power football.”
The Buckeyes success on the ground has opened up the deep passing game, too. Junior Devin Smith had a 90-yard touchdown reception against California earlier this year and is averaging 41-yards per touchdown catch for his career. In fact, he’s the one that caught Miller’s late and desperate 40-yard touchdown in 2011 to stun Wisconsin.
“Their first four games, they’ve just been airing it out,” Shelton said. “I think that’s going to present us with a really big challenge. We haven’t really faced a team that’s thrown a lot of deep balls. We’ve faced teams that have been throwing the ball but this is going to be a real challenge for us to be disciplined as far as our eyes and staying true to the call and making sure we’re in the right spots.”
Since Andersen and Aranda arrived on campus last December, the message has been to be aggressive and take the fight to the offense. Against quarterbacks like Miller and Guiton, the message may change.
“We have to be able to contain the quarterback,” Aranda said. “When he is in the pocket, he is at our advantage. When he’s on the move, nothing good happens (for the defense).”
“You definitely can’t let them get loose,” senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong added. “They’ve shown the ability to create plays with their feet. Extend plays and throw it deep. We just can’t let that happen. That’ll get us beat.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin