Third-down failure key in Badgers’ loss at Michigan
The first reason Paul Chryst gave for the University of Wisconsin’s offensive struggles in a 38-13 loss at Michigan on Saturday night came just seconds into the coach’s opening press conference statement -- “We’ve got to be better on third down.”
The Badgers converted just two of their 11 third-down tries against the Wolverines, including a 2-for-6 mark when UW needed just three yards or less to pick up a first.
“Third down’s huge because it gives you more plays, more kicks at the can,” Chryst said. “At the end of the game, you look up and we had less than 50 plays, so those are fewer attempts to score.”
Third downs may be more vital for UW’s offense than just about anything else.
The Badgers hold a 23-0 record under Chryst when converting at least 45 percent, and their 49 total plays against Michigan were their least in a game since at least 2000. UW ranked fourth nationally at 48.65 percent during last season’s 13-win campaign, a category in which it currently ranks outside the top 30 at 44.44 percent.
The last time the Badgers put together a worse third-down performance than Saturday came in their 13-7 loss to Northwestern in 2015, when they converted just 2 of 13.
“They continue drives. If you don’t get third downs, then you’re punting,” said quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who failed to complete a first-down throw on his first eight third-down dropbacks against Michigan. “I think every person would probably take ownership and say that they can make (the passing game) better. ... There’s definitely room to improve. I think last week definitely told us that.”
UW could point to a number of issues that led to third-down inefficiency against the Wolverines.
Communication among the Badgers’ offensive linemen became an issue on at least two occasions in the first half. Hornibrook’s pick-six blunder in the fourth quarter came on third-and-2, and Garrett Groshek had no room to run on another third-and-2 the following possession.
“You go through it,” Chryst said. “The first one ... can you space it a little bit better? Is there another option for the ball to go? The next two, we have miscommunication, not on the same page protection-wise. And then we had another one where we had a chance to make a play and we don’t. Then we’re off on (pass) location on one if not two. So you’ve got to do all those things.”
Michigan often sent pressure after Hornibrook on third down, and the Wolverines did what they could to puzzle UW before the snap.
Badgers left guard Michael Deiter said they were prepared for that type of pre-snap confusion, however, and there shouldn’t be any excuse for that level of miscommunication among an offensive line unit with five veteran players.
“When you’re trying to make plays on third down consistently, the protection’s got to be there,” Deiter said. “So it starts with us. We’ve got to be able to protect. We’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page. Everything’s got to be as clean as we can possibly make it.”
Chryst said he expects plenty of man defense from Illinois this week at Camp Randall Stadium, and the Badgers’ third-down success could simply hinge on winning one-on-one matchups, creating separation and then getting the ball in the correct spot.
“There’s nothing magical about this game,” Chryst said, but UW needs all 11 players on task in order to find steady success.
“It was just a guy here and a guy there not executing (against Michigan),” Deiter said. “To have a good day offensively verse a defense like that, you’ve got to have 11 guys all doing their job and doing it good, or it’s going to be uphill sledding. That’s kind of where we got with some stuff - just one fit here, one fit there that just wasn’t where we needed to be. With a defense like that, they’ll make you pay.”