Both games out of the chute have been odd for the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense.
Red-zone mistakes — namely two turnovers, a fumble the Badgers recovered and a false start — derailed what would’ve been judged as a solid performance against a good defense if UW had been able to come away with a win against Penn State. The offensive game plan was intentionally pared down last week against visiting Eastern Michigan, so judging the good and bad aspects of the unit off those two outings means doing so with a limited sample size.
But there are tendencies emerging when that unit is on the field that are worth examining this early in the season. Some potential concerns — where’s the pre-snap motion? — can be addressed in the coming weeks, like when No. 18 UW goes to Chicago to face No. 10 Notre Dame at Soldier Field.
Other issues, like the Badgers’ lack of success on third down, will have to be fixed by better execution and a slight philosophy shift. Here are three trends on UW’s offense to keep an eye on.
Third down a problem
Through two games, the Badgers are 12 of 33 (36.3%) on third down. That’s worse than their 38% mark from last season, which was the program’s worst under head coach Paul Chryst. Before the 2020 season, UW had never been worse than 40.8% on third down under Chryst.
The 36.3% is in the bottom third of the nation and 11th in the Big Ten.
Perhaps most alarming about the third-down conversion rate is that UW is just 8 of 15 on third-and-3 or less. Chryst has helped make up for those failures by going for it on fourth down, which has worked 3 of 5 times. Both failed fourth down attempts were inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, one being quarterback Graham Mertz’s fourth-quarter interception against Penn State and the other a Chez Mellusi run stopped near the goal line against EMU.
UW is 3 of 7 on third downs of 4-6 yards and 1 of 9 on third downs of more than 7 yards.
"As an offense, we've got to be better on third down," Chryst said Saturday. "That's not just Graham, that's me, that's everyone."
One solution — though easier said than done — is to avoid third downs entirely, which UW did on their lone touchdown drive against Penn State. Another could be to mix things up on third-and-short — UW has run on 14 of its 15 third-and-short opportunities.
Notre Dame’s opponents have converted 14 of 33 (42.4%) third-down chances, which also ranks in the bottom third in the country, so UW may be able to get things going against the Irish.
First down’s too predictable
UW has run the ball on 58 of its 78 first-down plays. That includes a 30-11 split against Penn State and a 28-9 ratio against Eastern Michigan.
On the one hand, the Badgers have had success with these runs — first down runs are averaging 5.6 yards. After excluding Isaac Guerendo’s run of 82 yards on a first down against Eastern Michigan, UW is averaging 4.3 yards on all other first-down runs. That’s a solid gain to start a series, but it’s not as much as UW is getting when it passes on first down.
First-down pass plays have averaged 7.9 yards and Mertz is 13 of 20 for 157 yards when passing on first down. That average includes the 15-yard loss after Mertz was flagged for intentional grounding on a first-down pass against the Nittany Lions. Take that play out and UW averages just over 9 yards per first-down pass.
UW controlled the line in the run game for stretches against Penn State and for almost the whole game against Eastern Michigan, but against some of the better defenses they’ll face this season, giving the offensive line the advantage of the opponent not knowing if a run or pass is coming on first down will be necessary.
It should be noted that UW was intentionally running its base running plays against EMU and tried not to put too much on tape for opponents, so that factored into the run-pass split on first down. But UW still was 30-7 run over pass on first down against PSU until the last-minute drive to end the game that featured four first-down passes.
Lack of motion
UW has used motion on 11 of its 172 snaps this season, just over 6% of the time.
That total number of snaps is higher than the number of plays run in UW’s stats because the State Journal counted plays that featured mid-play penalties, as those fouls didn’t impact the decision to use motion.
This is a shift for UW under Chryst, as typically pre-snap motion has been a large part of the offense. It dipped last season after injuries left the offensive skill positions depleted, but UW has had its full complement of receivers and backs available this season. The Badgers have run 41.4% of their plays with two tight ends on the field and 35.6% with two backs — personnel groupings that lend themselves to motion because moving those players can change the strength of the offense’s formation and force a defense to move pre-snap.
Chryst said that using less pre-snap motion against Penn State — 10 of 96 snaps — fit the game situation and wasn’t a change he’d made to the offense. Against EMU, UW used motion on just one of 76 snaps.
Again, last week’s game plan was intentionally simplified, and perhaps the Badgers are waiting to show more motion against a tougher opponent. But it seems odd that UW isn’t using the advantages of pre-snap motion exposing matchups and defenses’ intentions more often.
Fans take to Twitter to sound off on Wisconsin Badgers' blowout of Eastern Michigan Eagles
Enough of thatUpdated
I can't tell if the offense was intentionally bland because they were facing an inferior opponent or because this year's offense is the equivalent of sodium-free saltiness.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) September 12, 2021
At least, I know I don't need to see more of Chase Wolf.
One would thinkUpdated
I’m no expert but you’d think they’d intentionally have him roll through his progressions and throw to 3rd option— BadgerBro614 (@BBro614) September 12, 2021
We'd all like to knowUpdated
Defense is dominant as always. Rushing game is damn good. My only concern is what the hell is going on in the red zone?— Matt Anderson (@mbanderson83) September 12, 2021
'Could' is the key wordUpdated
Our offense could be successful in the Mid America Conference.— David Koller (@DavidBKoller) September 12, 2021
Spinning their wheelsUpdated
Defense is exactly who we thought they were. Offense needs to use games like this to actually improve instead of doing what they know will get the win.— Drew (@RNGDrew) September 12, 2021
Keep calm and tweet onUpdated
Calm down it’s week 2 against a MAC team. Lol— Nick Hardrath (@nhardrath) September 12, 2021
Only time will tellUpdated
As expected. Still need to see O against a good opponent to see if things have really been fixed.— David Padget (@davidcpadget) September 12, 2021
Who saw that coming?Updated
Good to see them to work the running game into their scheme, nice wrinkle...— Tim (@tbailz) September 12, 2021
Can we get Matt Canada back?— 🐮 (@BADGER_JOEMEYER) September 12, 2021
Tell them what they've won ...Updated
I think the EMU athletic department will put their $1.4 million to good use— Andrew Tucker (@AndrewJTucker16) September 12, 2021
Earning his keepUpdated
Jim Leonhard might be best DC in the country.— Salvador Allende (@1973salvador) September 12, 2021
They've only just begunUpdated
Solid win. Offense still has a long way to go if we want to be competitive— Wisconsin Homer (@wisconsintakes) September 12, 2021
Defense - Outstanding— Michael Martin (@mjmartin557) September 12, 2021
Offense - meh
One is never enoughUpdated
more games like that please— Hoodie Maybin (@HoodieMaybin) September 12, 2021
What a night!Updated
Go Brewers— Stephen Henreckson (@sphenreckson) September 12, 2021
In the worst wayUpdated
Badly needed!— Jim Gahn | 🦌🏀🏆 (@Jim_Gahn) September 12, 2021
Is it too much to ask?Updated
Not a single jet sweep— GG (@gjgmur1) September 12, 2021
Taking care of businessUpdated
We won. Yay— Josh Miller (@JoshMiller2934) September 12, 2021
Short and sweetUpdated
Dominant.— Coach Riley (@OLCoachRiley) September 12, 2021