Blockers Anonymous

Although its a group that has struggled to put up consistent receiving numbers, Wisconsin's receivers have taken assistant coach Zach Azzanni's approach, leading to big gains in the running game.

MADISON - In the eyes of wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni, the performance of his receivers in the Big Ten championship game might have been the best yet.

How was that even remotely possible after Wisconsin's receivers grabbed only three of the eight completions for only 30 yards and no touchdowns?

"Our downfield blocking was off the charts," said Azzanni. "This group is as good as I have been around."

Wisconsin rushed for 539 yards in its 70-31 victory over Nebraska in the conference championship game – the most yards the Cornhuskers have ever allowed on the ground – and eight rushing touchdowns. The Badgers had seven rushed of 20 yards or longer, and the biggest ones were spurred by stellar downfield blocking.

On Wisconsin's first drive, junior Jared Abbrederis – who leads the team in catches (46), receiving yards (793) and receiving touchdowns (five) – engaged Cornhuskers cornerback Ciante Evans long enough to help Gordon, who already made two defenders miss on the jet sweep, get in to the end zone two minutes into the game.

He did it again two drives later on a 21-yard run by Gordon, driving Evans over 30 yards down the field and taking him out of the play.

"When the line does their job and gives the running back's holes to get down field, we have to make sure we are on our guys to keep them going down field," said Abbrederis. "(Azzanni) preaches that we have to be more than a pass-catching receiver. We have to be a full receiver, and that's blocking and doing everything right."

Chase Hammond (who only has five catches on the season) delivered a perfect seal block on linebacker Sean Fischer to get Montee Ball a 25-yard gain on the first play of UW's third series, leading to another touchdown. Jeff Duckworth (two catches since week 3) got his shot on Evans, taking the cornerback out of the play that allowed Gordon to scamper 60 yards to set up UW's final touchdown of the first half.

With Wisconsin up 63-24 early in the fourth quarter, the receivers kept pushing, as Jordan Fredrick sold his route fake so well that Gordon was already past cornerback Andrew Green by the time the junior turned around. Wisconsin scored on the next play.

"We need to have unselfish guys on our team," said Abbrederis, who also credited tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak for leveling a lot of the groundwork on those runs. "If we can have success running the ball, that's what we're going to do. That's the mentality we have at Wisconsin: willing to do anything to help the program out."

The Fredrick block was the one that popped to Azzanni. Saying the blocking mentality comes over time, Fredrick – a redshirt freshman – has caught 16 passes for 192 yards and has caught at least one pass in the last five games.

"He's playing his best ball right now," said Azzanni. "Here is a guy that was recruited to linebacker and he is starting as a redshirt freshman. He's made some big plays that have been huge for his confidence. He's a puppy that has gotten better and better. He's dipped a little, but has steadily improved."

A group that has sprung a lot of offense in the running game, Wisconsin will be tested against a Stanford defense that enters the game allowing 2.8 yards per carry and 87.7 rushing yards per game. Stanford has held eight of 13 opponents below the 100-yard mark.

"(Blocking is) something we have been trying to do all season, and that's something we have done here for awhile at Wisconsin," said Abbrederis. "We've had a lot of good running backs at Wisconsin, and our successes or failures impacts that."

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