October 2, 2009

Shuffled offensive line having success

MADISON, Wis. - If we rewind to early August, and somebody prognosticating the future would have told you that the Badgers projected offensive line would only give up two sacks through four games, would you have believed them?

I would have answered maybe, just based on the strength of schedule through those first four games, particularly the non-conference games.

If that same person would have told you that two freshmen-Travis Frederick and Peter Konz-would start at center, and another, Kevin Zeitler, at right guard, in addition to John Moffitt moving to left guard in favor of Jake Bscherer that that makeshift line would still only give up two sacks. Would you have believed them then?

"Never would have believed it," UW's starting right tackle Josh Oglesby said following practice earlier this week. "But that's our next man in rule."

It's that next man in rule that has allowed one of the Big Ten's biggest surprises, Scott Tolzien to get off to the start he has in his first season as the Badgers starting quarterback. One that has seen him named Big Ten offensive player of the week after his four-touchdown passing day against the Spartans.

It is also the reason the Badger rushing attack has accumulated an average of nearly 200 rushing yards per game, ranking second in the Big Ten.

"It just speaks volumes of our offensive line," Oglesby said. "That you can have guys shuffle around like that and still be productive players."

Not getting too high through only one quarter of the season, but offensive line coach Bob Bostad has to be given credit for the way he has pieced together a puzzle that seemed nearly impossible when Moffitt and Bill Nagy missed a majority of fall camp with their respective injuries.

But since Bret Bielema has taken over as head coach, one phrase heard loud and clear around Badger camp is 'next man in.' And that is simply the approach Bostad has taken with his positional unit and one Bielema is impressed with.

"I wanted our offensive line to be a strength," Bielema said at his weekly presser. "It needs to be a strength always at Wisconsin. But (I) didn't really envision it being the way it is right now…So what I really give kudos to (is) Bob Bostad. He was kind of able to piece guys in the right positions."

And the first piece started with Konz. During his redshirt year on campus, Konz was a utility lineman. He had experience practicing at tackle, guard and center. So, when Frederick went down with an ankle injury early in the Fresno State game, there was no hesitation putting Konz in there.

"He's already played tackle and guard," Bielema said. "So we threw him in there at center. Then ironically, he gets his shot at center because of the injury to Travis Frederick and has just continued to move forward."

Then, though Bscherer hadn't played bad in the first three games, when Moffitt, last year's starting center returned from his pectoral injury, he started at left guard. In all actuality, it may be a position better suited for him because of his athleticism and pulling ability, but he was understandably a bit rusty during his first start there against MSU.

"I think John Moffitt would be the first to tell you that he did some good things on Saturday," Bielema said. "But guard is totally different than center and he's a work in progress."

Now, with game five against Minnesota upcoming, the line will have an opportunity to keep the early momentum it has going. But the Gophers front four, even after the suspension to Cedric McKinley, is going to present a challenge.

"They're the biggest defensive tackles we've faced," Bielema said. "We've been trying to do everything we can to simulate that during practice, but we just don't have anybody that size.

"We've been on those guys about certain things about pass protection just because they're so powerful and just moving them at the point of attack when we're in the run game. It's something that I'm sure they're excited about and I know our kids are excited to play."

So, even though the line has disallowed a sack in three of its first four games and helped the running game function, it will have its hands full in pass protection against the Gophers. Still, maybe by the end of game five, this puzzle will move one step closer to being complete.

Even if it's hard to believe this somewhat makeshift unit has only given up two sacks through four games.

"That was definitely unexpected," Tolzein said. "But it's a tribute to the players, the guys, the offensive linemen and coach Bostad. They've done phenomenal. The one thing I can say is that everyday they come out with the workers mentality and they're working to get better everyday.

"It's good to see that paying off."

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