Keeping it clean: Badgers OL limiting QB sacks at record pace

Thanks to an offensive line that has allowed just seven sacks in nine games -- an average of 0.78 per contest, which is tied for sixth nationally -- Badgers quarterback Joel Stave (2) has rarely been touched by opponents this season.

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MADISON, Wis. — Joel Stave has been sacked 30 times in his college career. He has been pounded to the turf by hulking defensive ends and tackles on countless other occasions. He has sustained a broken collarbone and injured the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in separate games.

In other words, Stave understands better than most what it’s like to take a hit at Wisconsin. Which is why this year has been so refreshing for the redshirt junior quarterback, who is being protected by his offensive line better than he can ever remember.

Take, for example, Wisconsin’s 38-28 victory against Illinois last month, when the Illini did not record a single sack. Stave, in fact, doesn’t recall even being touched behind a line that averages 6-foot-5, 321 pounds per man.

"You don’t always notice that, but when you don’t get hit at all is when you really notice like, ‘Wow, that was a little bit of a different feeling,’" Stave said. "So I think all in all, they’ve done a really good job in pass protection.

"Since I’ve been playing, I don’t know if I’ve ever played an entire game and stayed up the whole time. That was a unique experience."

That one game was not merely an aberration. Wisconsin’s offensive line is on pace to produce perhaps the single best season for sacks allowed in recent program history. The Badgers have allowed just seven sacks in nine games — an average of 0.78 per contest, which is tied for sixth nationally. No Wisconsin team since at least 2001 has surrendered fewer than 1.08 sacks per game, and only two of the past 13 teams have allowed fewer than 1.7 sacks per game.

Wisconsin offensive line coach T.J. Woods is quick to point out that sacks are a team statistic — the running backs, fullbacks and tight ends must pass protect as well, and the quarterback must throw the ball away if under duress. Still, the line deserves plenty of credit.

"I think it’s about their focus and about their hard work and what they put into it," Woods said. "We’ve got two really good tackles. That’s where it all starts in pass protection. They’ve done a good job in that regard. . . . I think as far as giving the quarterback the time he needs to be able to do what he needs to do, these guys have done a tremendous job of that."

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Keeping a quarterback clean is always a priority for any line. This year’s unit just happens to be doing it better than most. Stave has been sacked four times all season, while Tanner McEvoy has been sacked on three occasions. There are currently 18 FBS teams that are allowing at least three sacks per game.

"With the injuries that can happen to a quarterback, that can be a big loss," Badgers left tackle Tyler Marz said. "That’s huge, just keeping him off the ground. You can’t afford to give up those big hits on a quarterback, especially when he’s staying in there maybe relaxed ready to throw and all of a sudden a big hit comes on him. I’d say that’s a top priority for us."

Some might think this year’s team simply does not pass as much because Wisconsin ranks fourth nationally in rushing offense, has a Heisman Trophy candidate with tailback Melvin Gordon and uses more read-option plays with McEvoy in the game as part of the team’s two-quarterback system. But Wisconsin is averaging 23.2 passes per game, which is more than the Badgers passed in 2002, 2010 and 2012. Even the record-setting 2011 team with quarterback Russell Wilson passed 23.4 times per game.

For further evidence, here’s a look at the average number of sacks Wisconsin has surrendered per game and the average number of passes since the 2001 season:

Year: Sacks allowed/passes per game

The only other Wisconsin offensive line that comes close to matching this year’s pass protection success is the one in 2010, which sent all five of its starting offensive linemen to the NFL: left tackle Gabe Carimi was a first-rounder, left guard John Moffitt a third-rounder, center Peter Konz a second-round pick, right guard Kevin Zeitler a first-rounder and right tackle Ricky Wagner a fifth-rounder. That team also passed on two fewer occasions per game.

This year’s line has a sure-fire NFL pick in 6-8, 333-pound right tackle Rob Havenstein, who was a second-team all-Big Ten pick a year ago by the league’s coaches. Marz, a 6-5, 321-pound redshirt junior who earned honorable mention all-conference last year, could be an NFL player as well. And those two bookends at tackle have negated much of the opponents’ outside pass rush, as Woods noted. Kyle Costigan and Dallas Lewallen, both seniors, also have a chance to find an NFL home next season.

But what makes the 2014 unit special, players say, is the continuity on the line with a group that has played in several games together.

Marz entered the season having played in 24 games with 13 starts, while Havenstein had appeared in a team-high 40 games with 28 starts. Lewallen, the left guard, played in 13 games with seven starts at center last season for an injured Dan Voltz, the team’s center this season who started the first five games a year ago. And Costigan, the right guard, had played in 28 games with 21 starts.

"Continuity with the O-line is huge," Havenstein said. "Playing O-line is not really about five guys going out there and playing. It’s one unit going out there and playing as well. If I give up a sack, the whole O-line has given up a sack. They might specifically pin it on me, but when it comes down to when you start talking about stats, it’s still going to be the O-line getting credit for the sack.

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"We’ve basically got to be a chain, all five of us. I think it personally helps out if you really like the guy playing next to you and you’re hanging out with him. You really don’t want to let the guy next to you down."

One other area in which this year’s line has excelled is in its ability to quickly move off the snap to gain leverage on defenders. The Badgers’ offensive line is always bigger than the opposing defensive line, but there is more to having success than occupying space.

Wisconsin outweighed Purdue’s front four by 46 pounds and Rutgers’ defensive line by 62 pounds. And when No. 22 Wisconsin plays host to No. 11 Nebraska on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers’ offensive line will outweigh the Cornhuskers’ defensive line by an average of 47 pounds.

Marz said he took thousands of practice reps in pass protection before ever stepping foot on the field on Saturdays, which helped when the speed of a real game amped up. And a heavy emphasis is set on quick feet, ability to change direction, staying low and hand placement.

"We like to think we’re athletic," Marz said. "A couple of us played basketball in high school and different sports. When there’s a guy running straight forward and we’re backpedaling basically, you’ve got to be quick and be able to react. It comes with practice and repetition. You kind of have to build that attitude like you’re going to win every rep. And then you get the gratification when you do."

Added Havenstein: "Obviously, we’re recruited here at Wisconsin because we’re bigger guys, and that’s kind of the mold that they like. There’s no surprise when we’re all walking around. We’re big guys. But if you can’t move, you can’t play."

This year, Wisconsin’s big boys have shown they can move. And they can play at an exceptionally high level, keeping the quarterback clean as well as any unit in recent program history.

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