MADISON - Between Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez and secondary coach Bill Busch, the Badgers have 53 years of college coaching experience, meaning the duo have gone through a lot of game plans on many different levels.
And while Busch understands Auburn has had some frustrating losses over the final four weeks of the college football season, the veteran assistant doesn’t mince words when he lays out just how talented the Tigers are.
“They’re as good of an offense as I’ve ever coached against, and there’s been some really good offenses,” said Busch. “Just turn the film on. They make plays against everybody.”
The challenges No.19 Auburn (8-4) present for No.17 Wisconsin (10-3) to try to defend in the 2015 Outback Bowl are multiple and scary on offense.
The brain child of Gus Malzahn, who led Auburn to the SEC championship and to the NCAA title game last season, the Tigers are one of eight FBS teams averaging at least 230 yards passing and rushing per game.
A wing-t run team, the Tigers use a lot of misdirection and utilize big wide receivers to attack linebackers, sealing players to the inside that result in big gains outside the tackles. It’s a reason why the Tigers average 258.5 and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne leads the SEC in rushing at 127.7 yards per game (1,482 yards).
“He’s really an innovative coach,” said Alvarez, who has followed Malzahn’s career from afar. “Very creative. Creates problems with his pace on offense. When you watch, you see a lot of very good athletes, good skill players, a lot of speed and they’re well coached. I am impressed.”
Of course it helps having an elite-level quarterback to make the offense tick, which Malzahn has in senior quarterback Nick Marshall. An efficient dual-threat quarterback, Marshall has completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,315 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions and is the team’s second-leading rusher, averaging 65.0 yards per game and 11 touchdowns.
Marshall, a preseason All-SEC selection, has a school QB record eight career 100-yard rushing games, broke school records for passing (456 yards) and total offense (505) in a 55-44 loss at No. 1 Alabama, has five fourth-quarter comebacks and is 9-2 in one-possession games, including a 3-0 mark against ranked teams on the road.
“The quarterback is very slippery,” said defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. “Not many people have been able to tackle him. When he scrambles, he scrambles to throw, not necessarily scramble to run. They are great at deep balls, jump balls and everything else. It’s a vertical throw game. In those respects it’s a difficult matchup.
“They have really good speed so when they do hit the perimeter, if there’s not people in place, it’s a problem.”
Aranda compared the speed and pace of Auburn’s offense to the Badgers’ two-point loss at Arizona State last September. Busch couldn’t compare the Tigers’ wide receivers to anyone. Having four wide receivers with 20 catches or more, Duke Williams (45 catches, 730 yards, 5 TDs), Quan Bray (34, 408, 4) and Sammie Coates (30, 717, 4).
Against an offense like that, the biggest advantage Wisconsin has is extra prep time to decipher tendencies and come up for a game plan for when to blitz and when to drop into coverage.
“The more looks our guys get will help them, but they can make things happen at quarterback,” said Alvarez. “You can have everything defended and he can make plays. Their three wide receivers are special. They’ll throw it down the field, and that’s the quarterback does best in the throwing game with big tall wide receivers who can run fast.”
While Auburn’s offense brings speed, its defense brings physicality and play-making ability. The Tigers lead the SEC with 19 interceptions and will likely load the box with a front seven that have six players over 235 pounds.
“They’re athletic and they’re big,” said Alvarez. “I am sure they’re going to load the box on us, squeeze things down and try to press the line of scrimmage. We have to respond to that. It’s about us executing.”
Wisconsin failed to execute its last time on the field – a humbling 59-0 shutout by Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game Dec.6 – but have to feel like a different team. The Badgers are almost 100 percent healthy on offense (center Dan Voltz is expected to practice today) and face a team that isn’t quite the juggernaut the Buckeyes were.
The Tigers have allowed over 400 yards on defense in the final six SEC games of the year, including over 500 yards to No.1 Alabama and 6-6 South Carolina.
“It’s nothing we’ve never faced for,” said sophomore tailback Corey Clement. “A lot of teams have gashed them for a lot of yards, so why can’t we be the same? You’ve just got to have confidence. We saw what we can do against LSU, so I believe we can put up a fight against these guys.”