A Cut Above the Rest

There was concern in the Wisconsin football offices on how the new NCAA rules for cut blocking would effect how the Badgers went about their business. So far, it's been business as usual for the UW running game.

MADISON - When word came down from the NCAA rules committee that the league was going to take a tougher stance on cut blocking rules to ensure the health of its players, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema couldn't help but give a slight cringe.

It's no secret that Wisconsin likes to run the football behind its big offensive linemen and that the cut block is just one of the integral tools a lineman uses to spring a running back open for big yardage. But with a complicated set of can-you-can't-you questions regarding the rules' verbage, Bielema was bold in saying that the change could really affect the way Wisconsin plays football.

Entering this weekend's match-up against Northern Illinois, however, it's been business as usual for the Badgers' running game, averaging 224.5 yards on the ground (23rd in the country) and averaging 43 points per game (24th in the country). Despite running 81 times in two weeks, No.7 Wisconsin has not had an offensive lineman or tight end whistled for a new illegal cut block penalty.

"It's a work in progress as a coach in your play design, which is where we are at right now," offensive line coach Bob Bostad said. "It isn't going to change a lot for the offensive line as much as the tight ends and in some of our changes and trades. That will be a little bit different, but I am not going to make a big deal out of it. I don't like the new rules, but we are work through it."

Under the new rules, offensive linemen are non-restrictive players, meaning that if the player is lined up within seven yards of center on scrimmage plays, they will still be permitted to block below the waist anywhere on the field.

The same cannot be said for the tight ends, as the group is affected based off alignment, when they are or are not motioning and how they attack a defender. According to tight end coach Joe Rudolph, the biggest rule is if the center is in the middle of a balanced formation with two guards, two tackles and two tight ends on the line of scrimmage, nobody is restricted and any defender if fair game.

If a tight end is in the backfield behind or inside a tackle and is not in motion, that player is unrestricted with his cut blocking. As soon as that tight end goes in motion, he becomes restricted with his blocking, meaning he can cut players to the near sideline but cannot cross the formation and cut towards the back sideline.

That's just a small example, as the rules for a wing formations and formations with two tight ends to one side offer other caveats to the rules that nobody in the Wisconsin football office is quite sure how it will be called or if it will be called consistently.

"There are a lot of little details we need to be smart with," Rudolph said. "We are really looking for a little bit more feedback. I went back and looked back throughout the season at all the times we cut block and there was probably 15 plays where we might have block differently. Not a ton, but still something to definitely be aware of and adjust our coaching points on."

The rule was implemented to eliminate dangerous crackback blocks below the waist on defenders in the middle of the field, when the blocker comes from the outside. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said parts of his summer were pouring over film with Big Ten director of officiating Bill Carollo to find out the rate and the consistency of what will and won't be called.

The time appears to have been well spent. Wisconsin has rushed for seven touchdowns this season and two of them have been sprung by players going the extra mile. In Russell Wilson's 46-yard run against UNLV, tight end Jacob Pedersen, a restricted player in the formation, got up in front of his defender and used his upper-body strength to push him to the ground downfield while Nick Toon sealed off his defender at the goal line.

Against Oregon State, Montee Ball found the end zone from 19 yards when Bradie Ewing cleared a path as the lead blocker and Jared Abbrederis flatted his responsibility at the goal line by keeping his hands inside the shoulder pads.

All were clean blocks from guys playing hard, which have led to a lot of early success for Wisconsin despite some of the tweaks in its philosophy.

"I think it's about understanding the rule because if you have clear understanding, you aren't wondering," Chryst said. "They should be blocking through the whistle. That's what they are supposed to and that's what they are doing. You appreciate at, and I think guys are buying into it."

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