Wednesday, December 29, 2010
No strain, no gain for Badgers' O-line
By Adam Rittenberg
LOS ANGELES -- At some point on the night of April 28, Gabe Carimi will hear his name called in New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Carimi will collect a bunch of money, a new address and countless other perks that go along with being a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Gabe Carimi anchors Wisconsin's stellar offensive line.
But he'll also lose something that night. Carimi will never be a part of an offensive line like the one he anchors at Wisconsin.
"It won’t happen again," he said. "I was guaranteed to be with these people for five years. How it is with the next level, people get traded and stuff, so I'll never have that tight bond that we have here."
Like all great offensive lines, Wisconsin's group aces the chemistry test. The Badgers' linemen not only have worked together for years on the field, but they enjoy each other's company away from it.
The physical gifts are also there. Wisconsin's size up front is well documented -- its top six linemen average 319.7 pounds; center Peter Konz is the runt at 313 -- and the line's athleticism is significantly underrated.
But the line's best trait is its work ethic. Rarely does a unit enter the season tagged as the nation's best and exit the season with the same label. Preseason hype and offensive linemen mix about as well as garden salad and offensive linemen, but Wisconsin's players were well aware of the expectations.
But the talk didn't deter them from the action it took to be great.
"It comes down to the performance on the field," Badgers O-line coach Bob Bostad said. "It comes down to your work ethic, how hard you’re straining. Are you doing those things? Are you executing?
"Talking and all those things, that's great, but go out there and do it on the field."
Wisconsin's offensive line made its biggest statements between the lines in helping the team reach the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO.
No offensive line in America has credentials like Wisconsin's:
The line blocked for three 800-yard running backs, the most in the nation this season.
Wisconsin ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring (T-4th, 43.3 ppg); red zone touchdowns (2nd, 80 percent); fewest penalties (1st, 2.9 per game); fifth in red zone scoring (5th, 90.8 percent); third-down conversions (8th, 50.8 percent); possession time (7th, 32:39 average); rushing touchdowns (2nd, 46); and rush yards per carry (8th, 5.52 ypc).
The Badgers averaged 45.2 points in Big Ten play, the second-highest mark in league history.
Wisconsin attempted just one pass after halftime against Michigan and finished off a 48-28 win with 29 consecutive run plays (not counting two kneel-downs) that racked up 171 yards.
"We all kind of expected them to do great things this year because they didn't talk, they were doers and they worked and worked and worked," quarterback Scott Tolzien said. "We knew we had a lot of guys coming back on the line, but that's all on paper.
"We're where we are today because of them."
Wisconsin returned all five starters up front this season and welcomed back valuable lineman Bill Nagy, who missed all but three games last season after suffering several incidents in a moped accident. The Badgers boasted depth, talent and experience up front, but the line didn't surge out of the gate.
"It was like trying to start an engine," Bostad said. "We were winning, but I just didn’t think we were where we needed to be."
Bostad didn't think the linemen got caught up in their hype, but they needed a jolt. Unfortunately for the Badgers, one arrived Oct. 2 in the Big Ten opener at Michigan State.
The Spartans limited damage from Wisconsin's run game and flustered Tolzien, who completed only 11 of 25 passes in a 34-24 loss.
Bostad called the setback "an eye-opener." He could have called it a "hole opener" because that's all the Badgers' line did the rest of the regular season.
"A couple times I've stutter-stepped just because the holes are so big," running back John Clay said. "I didn’t know if it was real or not."
Two weeks after the Michigan State loss, Wisconsin upset top-ranked Ohio State in a game clearly won at the line of scrimmage. Cameron Heyward and the celebrated Buckeyes' defense was no match for Carimi, John Moffitt & Co., as the line created huge lanes and racked up 184 rush yards and three touchdowns.
The best part?
"We didn't do a damn thing different," Bostad said. "We jumped out ahead of them and kept moving. There’s not a lot of teams that are going to do that or be committed to that. Either they’re intimidated by it, they don’t believe in it, they just don’t feel kids can dominate like that anymore."
Wisconsin's offensive line has clear leadership in the senior triumvirate of Carimi, Moffitt and Nagy, who each bring their own style.
Carimi is the natural, the Outland Trophy winner, the future first-round pick. He doesn't say much because he doesn't need to. Others can learn simply watch and learn.
Moffitt is the vocal one, providing superb sound bites away from the field but words of inspiration during practices and games. His speech before Wisconsin's road win against Iowa still resonates.
Nagy has provided versatility, filling in at center, both guard spots and even tight end, where he started two games in Wisconsin's jumbo personnel package.
"Gabe is very talented, Moffitt’s very tough and Bill Nagy’s selfless," Bostad said. "Those are three great things to have."
The ingredients have helped Wisconsin's line fuel the push to Pasadena.
"The coolest part about it is they’ve put in the work," Tolzien said. "It's not something just given to them and it’s not just based on natural talent. It's based on how hard they’ve worked, the scheme that was put together and guys buying in and just doing their jobs."