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.