Plenty of Action

Wisconsin football has the long reputation of pounding the football, racking up the yards and milking the clock on its way to the end zone. In the last couple seasons, the passing game had fed off the running backs with the play-action pass. With a quarterback like Russell Wilson under center, the deception has gone to a whole new level.

MADISON – Head coach Bret Bielema and the members of his fourth-ranked Wisconsin football maintain that Wisconsin's offense isn't into gimmicks, just put the ball down and let the big guys up front open the gaps for the running game.

"What you see is what you get with our offense," junior running back Montee Ball said.

Well, not exactly. Wisconsin's running game is still about grinding out the yards, averaging 257.5 yards per carry and 5.9 yards per carry, and the passing game is still averaging over 200 yards through the air. The only difference this season is senior quarterback Russell Wilson is torching defenses by averaging 259.5 the passing game, and he's doing a lot of it with deception.

Enter Saturday's primetime tilt at No.15 Michigan State, Wisconsin has called an estimated 35 play-action passes through six games this season and every time one of the plays comes out of Wilson's mouth, Ball knows how to react.

"Honestly, whenever I hear him call the play, I know it's going to be a successful play," Ball said. "Russell does a great job of selling the fake and the running backs make sure we take pride in carrying out the fake. Russell does a better job of selling the fake, which has been a big thing for us."

The Badgers lead the country in third-down percentage, converting 44 of their 73 third-down attempts (60.3 percent), and Wilson has been a big part of that success. On third down this season, he is 29-for-36 (.806) for 347 yards, seven TDs and one interception, and he's made the play action even more lethal for the University of Wisconsin.

"Russell is a pretty gifted player," said offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. "We've been pretty good at play-action in some other years, too. Play action is always different because you have different guys, and the quarterback is certainly part of it. As we grow as coaches and players, we continue to develop it."

Wilson's ability on the move, buying time and making the right reads has been on the display from his opening pass. Against UNLV, Wilson faked the dive to Ball, rolled out to the right and hit Jared Abbrederis for 23 yards. When the game was over, Wilson was 4-of-5 on play action, completing passes of 39 and 41 yards and completed a wide-open 8-yard touchdown pass when the linebackers dropped their assignments to come up in run support.

"When you can run the football the way Wisconsin can, it opens up the passing game tremendously," said ESPN analyst Jessie Palmer, who called the opener against UNLV. "All the linebackers and safeties start playing down hill, and that opens up giant windows for Russell Wilson in the secondary.

"He's never played in an offense that had more receivers open because he's never had a running game like (Wisconsin's) to compliment his ability."

The play action game is a huge con for opposing defensive coordinators and the Badgers have been stealing yards all season. Against Oregon State (where the Badgers went 4-of-6 for 71 yards on play action), Wisconsin did the action using similar sets with different results.

After a wide receiver screen to Nick Toon, Wisconsin ran the same formation later in the game but faked the quick pass and the handoff, choosing to hit Abbrederis for 11 yards.

"When you have mobility, like Russell Wilson, and you are able to throw it with accuracy from the drop back, what that does is open up the playbook for (Chryst)," ESPN analyst Chris Spielman, who called the Oregon State-Wisconsin game. "It puts so much pressure on the defense because you know (Wilson) can hurt from any place, anytime, anywhere throwing the football either stationary or on the run."

It's not just the average teams that are falling for the con either. Against Nebraska, Wilson faked a toss to ball, shifting the entire defense in the process, and hit a wide-open Abbrederis on third down for a 36-yard touchdown.

"It all starts with offensive line and their ability to run block extremely well," said Wilson, who is 19-for-22 for 232 yards on third-and-5 or longer. "That's something that we work on on a daily basis, in terms of play-action fakes and really selling the fake and making sure it looks just like the run. I believe that mindset of being great, of excelling on a daily basis and striving for greatness is something that is instilled in every single player that we have on offense."

That work from the offensive line has been evolving even before Wilson came on campus. When the offensive line got together and watched film on the trickery, junior center Peter Konz pointed out that the unit would run sideways, completing ruining the run fake.

"It wasn't compelling," Konz said. "It definitely looked like a pass."

With the vibrancy of offensive line coach Bob Bostad, the offensive line is more natural in their movements. Throw in the fact that Wisconsin's running game and passing game are both dangerous weapons and the Badgers have a quarterback that can gain extra yards on the ground, the con game has produced big profits.

"No matter what play we run, we want all the guys to have ownership in it," Chryst said. "If we are running the ball, the receivers are every bit of part of it as the offensive line and play-action is no different. Every time we run a play, we need every guy to do their part, and I think guys have done a decent job."

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