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."
This is an article from the Oct. 3, 2011 issue
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.
Alvarez's ties to Nebraska played a small role in bringing the Huskers to the Big Ten—and may have triggered the first tremor of conference realignment. A few hours after the Rose Bowl in January 2010, Alvarez had dinner at a Pasadena hotel with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who peppered Alvarez with questions about the Huskers: Do they do things the right way? Do you think they would fit in the Big Ten? A day later Osborne called Alvarez at his Madison home, asking about the rumor that Delany was interested in adding Nebraska. Alvarez said it was true, then passed along Delany's phone number to Osborne, starting the Huskers' journey to the Big Ten. "I love Nebraska," says Alvarez. "It's the start of a new era for the Big Ten."
Laser pointer in one hand, Paul Chyrst punches a key on the computer in his cramped office, and suddenly Wisconsin's first offensive play of the 2011 season, against UNLV, is rolling on the video screen in front of his desk. "This is an off-tackle power running play," says Chyrst, the Badgers' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "It's a good example of everyone working together."
On first-and-10 from Wisconsin's 35-yard line, quarterback Russell Wilson hands the ball to running back Montee Ball. As Zeitler and Oglesby—the right guard and right tackle, respectively—seal their side of the line, Konz pushes his defender to his left. Wagner pulls from his left tackle spot and runs through the hole between Konz and Zeitler. As Wagner "mauls" (Chyrst's word) a linebacker, Ball follows closely, gaining 11 yards. It was only one play, but the O-linemen say that when they lifted themselves off the ground, they saw dazed looks on the faces of the Rebels defenders, who realized that the Badgers' front five hit with an impossible-to-prepare-for force. These are the small moments that the Uglies find beautiful. Wisconsin won 51--17.
"I expect the O-line to get me through to the secondary," says Ball, a 210-pound junior who is averaging 5.7 yards on 63 carries this season. "The O-line is the reason I came here. It's a running back's dream."
Another player who came to Madison largely because of the line was Wilson, a transfer from N.C. State who was the runner-up for ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2010. When he visited the Madison campus early this summer, he was given a tour of the weight room, where several of the linemen were working out. Gazing at the Paul Bunyan--like figures grunting and yelling as they lifted weights, Wilson went bug-eyed. "Never seen anything like that before in my life," says Wilson, who at the time was also considering Auburn. "I couldn't believe how much weight they were pushing. That pretty much made up my mind."
Then Wilson met the linemen, one by one.
• Wagner, a 6'6", 320-pound junior, is a former walk-on tight end from West Allis. He's gained 70 pounds since arriving on campus in 2008 and is the most athletic of the group. "Everyone on this line was a Wisconsin fan growing up," he says. "We have so much in common. That helps our chemistry."
• Frederick, a 6'4", 330-pound sophomore, is from Sharon and is known as the intellect of the Big Uglies. He's one of only 100 students at Wisconsin (which has an enrollment of 42,099) with a double major in engineering mechanics and computer science. "Football has just been a vehicle for me to get an education," says Frederick, who is the strongest player on the roster—he recently squatted 750 pounds, only 30 shy of the school record—and may be the most ferocious one-on-one run blocker in the Big Ten.
• Konz, who is from Neenah, is the rare snapper who can pull and flatten a safety 20 yards down the field. "None of us wanted to play in a spread offense," he says. "We like to hit people and move them out of the way."
• Zeitler, a 6'4", 315-pound senior, is from Waukesha. He's regarded as the hardest worker of the group, a self-made player who rarely makes a mental mistake. "I've been a hermit for the last three years because football is like another major, given how much time we've spent in the film room," he says.
• Oglesby, a 6'7", 330-pound senior, is from St. Francis High in Milwaukee. In 2007 he was the nation's No. 1 offensive tackle prospect, according to Rivals.com. He has the most natural ability of the starters. "I almost felt obligated to come here because of the O-line tradition," he says. Oglesby is backed up by the heaviest Badger of all, Havenstein, a 6'8", 345-pound redshirt freshman from Mount Airy, Md.
And here they come, stomping off the field after a two-hour practice at Camp Randall. The uniforms of the five Big Uglies are soaked; the offensive linemen are the only position players who don't get an extended break during practice. "The tempo we go at is nuts," says Konz, "but that means we'll be ready for that big moment when the team needs us. It hasn't happened yet this season, but we know it's coming."
Will that moment arrive against the Huskers? The Big Uglies sure hope so.
How big are the Badgers' boys? Pretty big. Here are the heaviest offensive lines in football—college or pro
Avg. Weight: 329.4
Left tackle Cordy Glenn tips the scales at a whopping 348.
2. BENGALS (NFL)
Avg. Weight: 325.8
Bigger isn't always better: The Bengals are 1--2.
3. CHARGERS (NFL)
Avg. Weight: 323.2
Left tackles don't get much bigger than Marcus McNeill (336).
4. TEXAS TECH
Avg. Weight: 323.0
Veteran line (two seniors and three juniors) mainly pass blocks.
T5. 49ERS (NFL)
Avg. Weight: 322.0
Five of the team's seven heaviest players start on the O-line.
Avg. Weight: 322.0
Oglesby, the regular right tackle, weighs 15 pounds less than Havenstein.
Ricky Wagner 6'6", 320
Travis Frederick 6'4", 330
Peter Konz 6'5", 315
Kevin Zeitler 6'4", 315
Rob Havenstein 6'8", 345