Tom Oates: Expect the unexpected from Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst when he’s given extra time to prepare
Paul Chryst’s finest hour in coaching came in the final game of his first season as the University of Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator.
You might remember the game as the perfect send-off for retiring coach Barry Alvarez, but 21st-ranked UW’s 24-10 upset of seventh-ranked Auburn in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2, 2006, also was notable for the near-perfect game plan dreamed up by Chryst. Given a month to figure out how to beat an Auburn defense ranked ninth in the nation, Chryst was at his creative best as the game unfolded.
“It was amazing,” UW assistant strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker said.
Walker would know. He was UW’s backup tailback that day, carrying the ball twice for 9 yards. Most of the time, Walker had a 50-yard-line seat for one of the program’s most dynamic offensive performances ever.
UW rolled up 548 yards against a defense that had allowed only 294.1 per game. Tailback Brian Calhoun rushed for 213 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback John Stocco threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receiver Brandon Williams caught six passes for 173 yards and a touchdown and rushed four times for 35 yards, giving him a total of 208 yards on 10 touches. Wide receiver Jonathan Orr and tight end Owen Daniels combined to catch seven passes for 120 yards, with Daniels scoring a touchdown.
What Chryst did that day was design an attack that got the ball to his fastest players on the edges with room to run. The Badgers ended up with eight plays of 27 or more yards — three rushing and five passing. In all, 17 of UW’s 69 plays — almost 25 percent — went for 10 or more yards.
By finding ways to repeatedly get underrated speed out into the open spaces, Chryst took the perception that the Badgers were a bunch of lumbering oafs and used it against the Tigers in wicked fashion.
“We got the ball on the perimeter,” Walker said. “I remember going into that game all we heard was, ‘Wisconsin is not fast enough.’ Not to say that was the first time that happened, but for me being here, that was really the first time I had heard those comments. But Brandon was fast, Brian was fast, they all could move.
“It was a great game plan. They knew the (Auburn) personnel, they knew how to get around them. I will never forget that game. It was brilliant just watching B.C. and Brandon going crazy. Owen Daniels had a few big catches that game, too. They just know how to utilize their people. Paul puts his players in a position to succeed. No matter what their strengths or weaknesses are, he’ll find a way to utilize their strengths.”
Nothing much has changed in the past 11 years, which is why Chryst and his offensive staff, given a month to prepare, are expected to come up with several new wrinkles when eighth-ranked UW plays 12th-ranked Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl on Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Even if Chryst decides his offense needs to stay on the ground and try to physically overpower the smaller Mid-American Conference team, he will have some new looks for the Broncos.
In fact, the Badgers are counting on it. Chryst’s imaginative game plans give them an edge every time they play, but the effect is often greater in bowl games because Chryst has extra time to plan and prepare.
“You give him time to watch that film and he’s going to come up with some plays to get big chunks on them,” wide receiver Jazz Peavy said. “He’s going to get some things going, some exciting plays for the offense. He’ll pick apart some film and get something planned for us, for sure.”
He certainly did in last year’s 23-21 victory over USC in the Holiday Bowl. Senior Austin Traylor, used primarily as a blocking tight end throughout his career, caught three passes for 47 yards and a touchdown, by far his best game of the season. Fullback Derek Watt had five rushes for 32 yards after carrying the ball four times in the previous 12 games. Safety Tanner McEvoy had been playing some wide receiver late in the season, but Chryst gave him four carries from the quarterback position and he gained 25 yards.
None of those things was new to UW’s offense, but each one was a change of pace that caught the Trojans off guard.
“I don’t think they really put in all that much extra stuff for a bowl game,” center Michael Deiter said. “We have our base offense, but you don’t go into every week of the season with everything in. But in the bowl game, you have an opportunity to put everything in. There’s really nothing that the offense can’t work on over this month. That’s why you see a little more out of offenses, because they have their whole offense in at that point. They don’t just have what they think will be good for them that week. They can put the whole offense in and adjust mid-game to what they want to get to.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said the coaches have to be smart about how many new things they put in because the players still have to have confidence while executing new or previously unused plays. Three weeks of bowl practices do allow the coaches to expand the playbook, though.
“There’s things you’ve practiced all year that you really haven’t gotten to because the situation hasn’t been right or, hey, it’s good against these types of looks but we didn’t get it to in this game or that game,” Rudolph said. “So you keep growing and you keep letting the guys grab more ownership of specials like those.”
If Chryst’s past is any indication, Western Michigan is in for a few surprises in the Cotton Bowl. In that case, the Broncos defenders will be in the same boat as the Badgers offensive players.
“There’s some stuff that he thinks of and it will just hit me and I’ll be like, ‘That’s genius,’ ” Deiter said. “He always seems to have at least one every week. He’s just got a really great football mind. Give him a month to work and he comes up with some good stuff.”
He’s been doing that for a long time.