This week’s Sports Illustrated features …
… Wisconsin Badgers starting offensive linemen eating at a Red Robin restaurant, along with …
If center Tyler Biadasz had to endure an initiation when he became the youngest member of the Red Robin High Council, his fellow Wisconsin offensive linemen aren’t revealing any details. “The first rule of Fight Club,” left guard Michael Deiter says, “is don’t talk about Fight Club.”
That might be one of the most accessible, decipherable statements from a group that communicates frequently in quotes from movies (The Big Lebowski), TV shows (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Office, Trailer Park Boys) and YouTube videos featuring random Canadian bumpkins fixing cars. The more obscure the reference, the better. “Nobody knows what they’re talking about except for them,” Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook says.
That’s why one of the linemen drops a “Those are good burgers, Walter” (Steve Buscemi says it to John Goodman in Lebowski) as the group devours an array of burgers, shakes and french fries. This outpost of the Red Robin chain in a Madison suburb has become holy ground for the 300-pounders who protect Hornibrook and open holes for Heisman hopeful Jonathan Taylor. Deiter, Biadasz, left tackle Jon Dietzen and right tackle David Edwards populate the High Council, which meets weekly. Right guard Beau Benzschawel has yet to be admitted to the Council because of his insistence on ordering fish and chips or chicken fingers instead of a burger*. Yet all five agree on the restorative powers of Campfire Sauce, the barbecue sauce/mayonnaise mix into which they dunk dozens of fries on each visit. “Just get a light coating,” Edwards advises. “Not a huge glob.”
*Don’t feel bad for Benzschawel. He owns a boat, which makes him the most popular lineman on the mornings when the weather is nice and the walleye are biting.
These five began playing together in spring 2017, when Biadasz won the center job as a redshirt freshman. That allowed Deiter, who had been playing center, to move to left tackle. (Deiter has since flipped spots with Dietzen and starts preseason camp at left guard, where he began his career.) Last year, the Badgers averaged five yards a carry and allowed only 21 sacks. In the process, Wisconsin reached double-digit wins for the fourth consecutive season and won the Big Ten’s West division for the second consecutive season. Deiter, Edwards and Benzschawel explored the possibility of entering the NFL draft, but they quickly decided they wanted to play one more season together on the Wisconsin team that might finally be talented enough to break through, win the Big Ten and reach the College Football Playoff.
Indeed, SI ranks the Badgers third in the preseason rankings, and predicts a trip to the playoff.
The group also could pave the way for a Taylor assault on Melvin Gordon’s school record of 2,587 rushing yards, which could put the back in striking distance of the Division I mark held by Barry Sanders (2,628). Taylor ran for 1,977 yards as a freshman, but at first, he didn’t realize how dominant his offensive line was. At early practices, he would watch the line plow open a hole and wait. “I was hesitant to go through it,” Taylor says. “I didn’t think a hole was supposed to be that big.” Taylor assumed a safety or linebacker was hiding behind the mass of bodies waiting to clobber him. He quickly learned there is no trick. “Oh, that’s normal,” Taylor says. “Those guys have got that thing sealed off.”
They also regulate the mood of the offense. When players bicker in the huddle, Deiter bellows and quiets them so Hornibrook can call the next play. When a Tyler Childers song called “Charleston Girl” flows from the speakers at practice, Deiter screams the lyrics. This causes a chain reaction down the line that occasionally ends with five 300-pounders singing and dancing and Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards yelling, “Why do we play this song?”
This apparent hivemind comforts Hornibrook, whose safety depends on the giants who gather to fish, to sing, to eat burgers and, ultimately, to move other large humans. “They’re never alone,” Hornibrook says. “They’re together all the time.” Deiter offers the ultimate explanation why. It’s not the Campfire Sauce. It’s the company.
“We’re forced to lift together. We’re forced to practice together. We’re forced to meet together,” he says. “That’s about it. All this stuff? We just like to do it. It’s pretty much an excuse for friends to hang out and eat their favorite food. We make this big thing about it, but it’s just us eating Red Robin. But when you know guys like that and you step on the field, nothing ever feels off. You’re playing Ohio State and it’s super loud. Frickin’ Nick Bosa is standing there. There’s a lot of stuff that can psyche you out. But then you look at Beau and he’s doing something stupid or Deitz is saying something stupid or it’s me saying something just so stupid. If you weren’t good friends, it would be so much different.”
Offensive line is, of course, the most important position group on offense. A quarterback has time to find receivers behind a good offensive line. A good running back has holes to run through behind a good offensive line. Behind a bad offensive line, neither happens.
This made me think of the 1980s Washington Redskins teams under coach Joe Gibbs. One reason why Gibbs should be mentioned as an answer to the question of the best coaches in the Super Bowl era is that he won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks and three different featured running backs. The reason was what were called the Hogs, the Redskins’ offensive line (including tight ends because Gibbs ran a two-tight-end one-running-back offense.) Gibbs won one Super Bowl with quarterback Joe Theismann and running back John Riggins. He won a second Super Bowl with quarterback Doug Williams (who had been beaten nearly to death by defenses at Tampa Bay and in the United States Football League) and previously-unheard-of running back Timmy Smith. He won a third Super Bowl with quarterback Mark Rypien and running back George Rodgers, who had been nearly beaten to death behind porous New Orleans (S)Aints offensive lines.
That’s basically how college football works. No player ever starts for more than four seasons, and that’s only if, like Hornibrook and before him Joel Stave, you start quarterbacks as freshmen. Coach Paul Chryst therefore has to change everybody every year or two, and yet he’s made it work every season.