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How the Badgers will rely on offseason prep, eye discipline and knee braces to slow Army's option

How the Badgers will rely on offseason prep, eye discipline and knee braces to slow Army's option

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Keeanu Benton didn’t hesitate to name what he’ll be relying on Saturday when the University of Wisconsin football team hosts Army.

It wasn’t the typical answer of his teammates, his instincts or his film study.

“Knee braces,” the junior nose tackle said. “I know they’re going to cut (block), I can see the plays. I’m going to try to get an idea of when they’re going to cut, but they cut a lot, so knee braces. I’m in the middle, so I’m not going to be able to see every cut, might be from the left or my right, so knee braces are going to be definitely a (life-)saver.”

State Journal beat reporter Colten Bartholomew and columnist Jim Polzin discuss Jalen Berger's dismissal and UW's matchup with Army

Benton and the entire defense know they’ll have to be prepared for a grueling physical test and a style of play many of them have never played against when the Black Knights (4-1) come to Camp Randall Stadium for a 7 p.m. game.

Army’s flexbone, triple-option offense will challenge the Badgers (2-3) to handle cut blocks, deception, repetition and more than 90% running plays. Every Army snap features multiple players in the backfield and most use fake handoffs or reads to trick defenders. But UW’s coaches weren’t going to ask their players to take on this challenge with just one week of focus; the Badgers have been working on stopping this offense since spring practices.

“The guys have heard everything we’re talking about, they’ve seen it, they understand the issues and why you have to do things a certain way, and now it’s having that one week of prep to get it done,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said.

“(Army knows) who they are, they know what they do, they’re going to roll it out there every week and be as physical as possible and make you earn it.”

During the summer, coaches would send players video cut-ups of Army games and advise them to study certain aspects of the scheme, and some fall camp practices featured periods in which they’d walk through the defenses they’d be playing this week.

Monday’s walk-through practice showed how different things will be this week for the defense. Cornerback Max Lofy, a redshirt freshman who has played in three games as a special teamer this season, was playing scout team quarterback to mimic Army signal-caller Christian Anderson. Anderson is Army’s leading rusher (431 yards, five TDs) despite missing last week’s game at Ball State with a shoulder injury, and his status for Saturday isn’t known.

This is the first time UW has played Army and only the fourth time the Badgers have played against a service academy. Many teams schedule Army after an idle week so they have extra time to get ready for its style of play — defending the option well requires defenders to stay sound in their gaps or with their assignment on each snap.

Army ranks second in the FBS in rushing at 318.2 yards per game, behind only Air Force (341.3), another flexbone, triple-option team. UW has the No. 1 rushing defense at 41.4 yards allowed per game. But Army’s system is to the run the ball regardless of the situation, unlike the Badgers’ other opponents this season who mostly abandoned the run when the game was close.

Jack Sanborn, UW’s leading tackler with 28, will be crucial in limiting the gains Army can create on the ground. The Black Knights assess wins in the run game differently than other teams, the senior inside linebacker said.

“The way that they want to play ball is 3 yards a carry,” Sanborn said. “That’s winning football for them. It’s not like they’re looking to get big hits, get 10-yard carries all the time. If they’re staying ahead of the chains a little bit, then that’s winning football for them. They’re just trying to grind you out to use every yard because they will go for fourth down if it’s fourth-and-short.”

UW will have the size advantage on the defensive line — the Army’s physical requirements don’t allow for players to exceed certain weights, and the current Black Knights’ offensive line doesn’t have a player weighing more than 290 pounds. But the smaller offensive linemen use their quickness to cut off defenders and create rushing lanes.

Saturday will be a slow day at the office for the secondary since Army attempts about six passes per game. It’ll be challenged to shed blocks and make tackles in the run game and to avoid allowing the big-play pass when Army does throw. Anderson has eight completions in four games this season, but those completions average 23.4 yards.

“Sometimes it gets real repetitive of doing your job over and over and over, you just can’t get lulled to sleep,” senior safety Collin Wilder said.

“You’ve got to make sure you stay locked in every single play. It’s all about eye discipline this week, eye discipline and being in the right spot and just doing your job. That’s how this offense tries to get you is as soon as one guy doesn’t do their job, a hole opens up or a guy is wide open.”

UW has six Big Ten Conference West Division opponents on the schedule to wrap up the regular season after this week, but the task of playing Army’s style is one it is embracing.

“This is a new, different type of challenge, so I’m excited for the opportunity that we have this week,” senior defensive end Matt Henningsen said. “As different as this game is going to be, it’s going to be a dogfight. … We’re playing the best of the best.”


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