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October 03, 2011
Behind a massive front five whom their own coach calls the Big Uglies, undefeated Wisconsin is playing classic Midwestern football, which may not be pretty but is ruthlessly effective
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October 03, 2011

The Thick Red Line

Behind a massive front five whom their own coach calls the Big Uglies, undefeated Wisconsin is playing classic Midwestern football, which may not be pretty but is ruthlessly effective

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The coach stood in the late-afternoon shadow that stretched across the field at Camp Randall Stadium, watching his offensive linemen prepare for a one-on-one blocking drill against the scout team. This is one of Bret Bielema's favorite moments of the week: a full-contact, full-speed practice, in which the tone is set for the coming Saturday. As he watched one of his starting linemen crouch into a three-point stance, ready to unleash holy hell on the redshirt freshman across from him, Bielema smiled devilishly, as if he couldn't wait for the bloodshed to begin. "This is what Wisconsin football is all about: man-on-man smashmouth," Bielema said. "Just watch this."

A whistle blew, and center Peter Konz, a 6'5", 315-pound junior, blasted forward, hitting the smaller scout teamer with startling violence, like a brick to the face. Konz drove his man back five, eight, 10 yards, finally leaving him sprawled on his back, gasping for air. Minutes later, after a few more torturous reps, that scout player staggered to the sideline to collect himself. "There's a standard here for offensive linemen like nowhere else in the country—and no, I don't feel bad for the scout teamers," Konz said that evening as he lounged on a couch outside the locker room of the seventh-ranked Badgers (4--0). "All of us linemen have that caveman spirit of wanting to dominate the guy in front of us. We love contact. Love it."

And it shows on game days, because Wisconsin may have the most ruthless offensive line in the nation: the Big Uglies, as Bielema calls them. On Saturday night the Big Uglies will face their stiffest test to date when No. 8 Nebraska (4--0) visits Camp Randall for its first conference game as a member of the Big Ten. Not since 1974, when the Badgers beat Nebraska 21--20 in Madison, have these closely linked big red Midwestern schools squared off. "In the history of Camp Randall Stadium [built in 1917], there's never been a harder ticket to get than the one for this Nebraska game," says Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who coached the Badgers from 1990 through 2005. "I personally ran out of tickets two months ago."

The key to this blue-collar slugfest will be which team controls the line of scrimmage. All five starters on the Wisconsin O-line—left tackle Ricky Wagner, left guard Travis Frederick, Konz, right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Josh Oglesby (who didn't play in last Saturday's 59--10 destruction of South Dakota and was replaced by Rob Havenstein)—grew up in the Badger State. Collectively they are the third-largest unit in the nation, averaging 322 pounds. Only two NFL teams, Cincinnati and San Diego, have more heft up front than Wisconsin. (Chart, page 66.) On Sept. 17, during the Badgers' 49--7 win over Northern Illinois, an awed referee approached the linemen during a timeout and said, "I've never seen football players as, as ... big as you guys."

"We simply have a lot of big people in Wisconsin," says Bielema. "Maybe it's eating all those cheese curds."

So far this season the front five have steamrolled their four opponents, helping Wisconsin average 532.3 total yards (eighth best in the country) and 48.5 points per game (sixth). The unit has an admirer from afar, who is reminded of the corn-fueled power game he once perfected on the plains. "Wisconsin does a lot of things that we used to do in the '80s and '90s," says Tom Osborne, the Nebraska athletic director and former football coach. "Our lines were filled with in-state kids who we'd put into our weight program for a few years. Wisconsin has emphasized their offensive line for a number of years, and they are very, very good."

Consider this: Since 1996, Wisconsin has had five starting left tackles. Four were drafted into the NFL (Chris McIntosh, Ben Johnson, Joe Thomas and Gabe Carimi), three were consensus All-Americas and first-round picks (McIntosh, Thomas and Carimi), and two won the Outland Trophy (Thomas and Carimi). In fact Wisconsin has become the new Nebraska—minus the option game—of college football.

The black-and-white picture hangs on the wall of Barry Alvarez's office, which overlooks the field at Camp Randall. In the photo a young Alvarez is a linebacker at Nebraska, and he's chasing Alabama receiver Ray Perkins in the 1967 Sugar Bowl. Alvarez would go on to be a graduate assistant under Huskers coach Bob Devaney in '70. That was the most formative year of Alvarez's coaching career, and when he became the coach at Wisconsin in '90, he immediately installed the Nebraska Way in Madison.

"The blueprint for everything I did came from Nebraska," says Alvarez, who went 118-73-4 in 16 seasons in Madison. "You're not going to find many five-star running backs in Nebraska or Wisconsin, but you can find big offensive linemen. So we wanted a big line, and we wanted to be physical. That's how we played at Nebraska, and that's how we play here now."

During the '05 season Alvarez and Bielema, then Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, went for three-mile walks every Thursday afternoon along the shores of Lake Mendota. Alvarez told Bielema what it took to build a successful program in Madison. The young coach listened intently. Before Alvarez handed the team over to Bielema before the '06 season, Bielema assured him that he would continue to play hard-nosed offense. And he has: In last November's 48--28 win over Michigan, the Badgers ended the game with 29 consecutive running plays.

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