At this point in 2015, 10 of the top 11 in the AP poll were unbeaten, and every conference had heavyweight battles we were talking about far in advance: No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 3 TCU, No. 5 Clemson vs. No. 11 Florida State, No. 6 LSU vs. No. 10 Alabama, and the round robin between No. 1 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan State, and No. 12 Michigan.
Almost nothing played out like it was supposed to. The four teams that ended up in the 2015 Playoff were ranked fifth, seventh, 10th, and 19th after six weeks. In 2014, they were first, seventh, 12th, and 15th.
We only think we know what we’re talking about so far. And if Wisconsin has anything to say, that Ohio State-Michigan battle this Thanksgiving weekend might not have the gravitas we’re expecting it to.
Six years ago in Madison, a rising Wisconsin welcomed No. 1 Ohio State to town, returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and turned Camp Randall into even more of a party than usual in a 31-18 win. It was the second straight week the AP No. 1 went down, and BCS No. 1 Oklahoma would lose the next week.
Do the Badgers have what it takes to kick-start college football’s inevitable chaos this time?
Wisconsin’s faulty offense gives the Badgers no margin for error, but they do have a path. It doesn’t include “Returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown,” but that wouldn’t be the worst idea.
It’s simple: For Wisconsin to win, the Badgers must make third downs matter. That sounds like one of those shallow tidbits announcers mention as keys to the game on TV, right? Right next to “QB must play well” and other obvious pieces of advice?
Every announcer and coach tells you third downs matter, but what tends to matter more: what sets up third downs.
The Ohio State-Wisconsin advanced stats tale of the tape I posted at Football Study Hall tells us third downs are among Wisconsin’s biggest advantages no matter who has the ball.
The Badger offense ranks second in Third Down S&P+, while Ohio State’s defense ranks 93rd.
The Wisconsin defense ranks second, while Ohio State’s offense ranks 59th.
Great! So third downs matter, and Wisconsin owns them! The question, of course, is, why?
For the offense, Wisconsin’s success has been set up by two things: avoiding losses and creating easy pitch-and-catch opportunities. The Badger passing game has been far from amazing, with redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook taking over for senior Bart Houston. But Wisconsin QBs have completed 16-of-22 passes on third-and-6 or less, and 12 of those have gone for first downs.
Wisconsin ranks 18th in Passing Downs S&P+, mainly because those passing downs are typically second-and-8 or third-and-5.
The Badger run game has been mostly ineffective, with Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale combining to average just 4 yards per carry.
They don’t lose yards, though. Wisconsin might rank just 110th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards), but the Badgers rank 27th in stuff rate (avoiding run stops at or behind the line).
Considering the schedule has already featured defenses like LSU’s and Michigan’s, that’s an impressive number.
Tight end Troy Fumagalli has 16 catches in five games and half have come on third down. Receiver George Rushing has a similar percentage: eight of his eight catches have come on third down. Wisconsin creates manageable third downs, then spreads the ball around in unpredictable ways to Fumagalli, Rushing, and leading receivers Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright. That moves the chains, and then the process begins again.
This creates two pretty important keys:
1. Wisconsin must avoid negative plays.
2. Wisconsin must convert on third-and-manageable.
Ohio State has played things conservatively on third downs. Opponents have completed 57 percent of their passes on third-and-6 or less, and the Buckeyes’ passing-downs sack rate ranks only 70th. So maybe there’s hope here for Wisconsin.
The problem: Ohio State stops 29 percent of carries at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes’ defensive stuff rate ranks third in the country. Freshman lineman Robert Landers has six non-sack tackles for loss, and six other Buckeyes have at least 1.5.
Ohio State can afford to play relatively safe on third-and-manageable because the Buckeyes know they’ll be creating a third-and-unmanageable soon. Key No. 2 only matters if Key No. 1 isn’t a huge loss for Wisconsin.
The Badger offense must probably score at least 17 points. If they can’t, what the defense does probably won’t matter. But if they can do the defense some favors, upset potential rises.
Wisconsin’s defense has been one of the best in the country. The Badgers are good at everything (ninth in Rushing S&P+, 11th in Standard Downs S&P+, 11th in Passing Downs S&P+, 15th in Passing S&P+), and if the game is to their liking, they could thrive.
The key will again come on third down. The Badgers are solid at creating third-and-long (the average distance of a third down against UW is 7.6 yards, 42nd in FBS) but the distance doesn’t seem to matter. Wisconsin allows a third-down conversion rate of just 23 percent (fifth). They rank sixth in power success rate (short-yardage stops) and 19th in passing-downs sack rate. They’ll stop you on third-and-short, medium, or long.
Ohio State is good at most things, but last week I noted that the Buckeyes hadn’t really proven themselves on passing downs.
If you can leverage them into uncomfortable downs and distances, they might not respond well.
Ohio State has basically a three-man receiving corps. Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson, and Noah Brown have caught an incredible 45-of-53 passes for 641 yards, 12.1 per target. Each has at least a 60 percent success rate (which measures how well they get the yardage to keep the chains moving on schedule) and 71 percent catch rate.
The next five targets on the list: 5 yards per target, less than half as many. If a top receiver gets hurt, or if an opponent slows these top options, J.T. Barrett might struggle to figure out where to go with the ball. That could mean some three-and-outs.
The numbers haven’t changed much in a week. Against Indiana, Barrett completed 5-of-12 passes for 49 yards on passing downs. Hell, he was only 3-of-8 passing for 42 yards on standard downs. Ohio State ranks 48th in Passing Downs S&P+ and 59th on third downs. This is easily the closest thing the Buckeyes have to a weakness.
Unfortunately for Wisconsin, a caveat still applies:
Ohio State has fallen into passing downs (second-and-long or third/fourth-and-medium or longer, basically) less frequently than any team in the country. The Buckeyes rank first in Standard Downs S&P+ and third in Rushing S&P+. So these last few paragraphs have amounted to: "Stop an unstoppable run game, and you might have a chance!" Good luck.
Ohio State now ranks second on standard downs and third in rushing. They rank first in First Down S&P+. Despite all of those issues against Indiana, the Buckeyes cruised, 38-17, because Barrett rushed for 138 yards and Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel combined for 153. Forcing Ohio State to pass is easier said than done.
There are two more keys for Wisconsin when Ohio State has the ball.
3. The Badgers must create passing downs.
4. No matter the distance, third downs are opportunities Wisconsin cannot fail to seize.
Again, the latter only matters with success at the former. Third downs only matter if you’re preventing Ohio State from gaining 10 yards on first and second.
No Buckeye opponent has come within 21 points yet, because no opponent has been able to throw Ohio State off-schedule. Is Wisconsin going to be any different?