There’s a reason football players and coaches at every level refer to third down as the “money down.” It’s the down that keeps drives and games alive and gives defenses the opportunity to get off of the field.
The quarterbacks that can keep their offenses going through these situations are the ones that earn the big money, and the coaches that can come up with new ways to move the chains are the ones who get paid.
Third downs haven’t been very lucrative for the Badgers this season. Their struggles started against Alabama, when redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave and company couldn’t string together long, time-consuming drives to keep themselves in the game and give their defense a break.
It plagued them against Iowa, converting only 4-of-13 attempts, and these mistakes kept them from crawling back into what was a close but brutal game.
Even in their wins, Wisconsin’s struggles on the “money down” hung over it. It struggled to come back against Nebraska because it couldn’t sustain third-quarter drives, and it ultimately took a last-second field goal to make up for it. Even against Troy, UW was just 3-of-10, but it was able to stay ahead of the chains to put points on the board.
“The whole season, we’ve been focusing on it. We work on every day, every week,” redshirt senior Alex Erickson said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit up to this point, and we’ve left some plays out there.”
Most of those plays left out there have been through the air. 80 percent of the Badgers’ third-down play calls this have been passes, and they’ve only converted 42 percent of them. Stave has completed just 33-of-72 attempts on these plays, and that hasn’t been enough for this offense.
“I think third down is as much a team effort as any situation,” Stave said. “We just have to make sure that we’re doing a great job of protection and doing a great job of running our routes and recognizing coverage, and then I have to make the right decision and get it out as quick as I can.”
One thing the quarterback has done well on third down is spreading the ball around. Overall, Erickson has almost twice as many targets as the next highest receiver on the team, but when the offense needs to move the chains, there is no tunnel vision.
Stave has targeted Erickson 15 times on third down, but he’s also sent 14 passes to junior wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and 10 to redshirt sophomore Jazz Peavy. In fact, 10 of Peavy’s 17 targets on the season have come on third down.
Redshirt sophomore tight end Troy Fumagalli and redshirt junior running back Dare Ogunbowale have nine targets each as well, and every skill position has been involved in the struggles.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a point of frustration but it is a point of emphasis,” Ogunbowale said. “It’s not taken lightly.”
One of the bigger, overbearing issues with Wisconsin’s third down offense is their running game, or lack thereof. If it’s not third and very short, it is completely abandoned. Of the Badgers’ 23 rushing attempts, 17 have come on third and one or two. They have not converted a third down on a run with more than two yards to go.
For opposing defenses, that makes the UW offense very predictable on these key downs. Even on third-and-three or third-and-four, Wisconsin hasn’t threatened to run the ball, so defenses can come out in nickel or dime personnel and drop everyone back in coverage, making it that much harder for Stave to execute.
“When you’re in those situations, third-and-five, third-and-six, those are ones that you’d really like to be able to convert,” Stave said. “I think that’s an area that we can always get better. If we’re able to be right around 50 percent, that puts you right around the top of the country.”
Over their last few games, they have gotten better. Against Purdue, the Wisconsin converted 7-of-14 third downs and, in Illinois, Stave and backup redshirt junior quarterback Bart Houston combined to move the sticks on 9-of-16 attempts.
The win over the Illini was one of the first times this offense was really able to come together and execute as a unit on third down. The banged-up Badgers found the consistency that has eluded them all season.
What really helped them was how they were able to stay ahead of the chains. Of their 16 third downs in Champaign, only two of them came on the third play of a drive. On all other drives, they were able to pick up one or more first downs before they faced a third down situation.
That got Bart Houston into a rhythm and gave the offense some momentum. The Illinois defense often found themselves on their heels by the time third down came, and it was just like any other first down for the offense to pick up.
“Third down is about making plays,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Whether it’s the catch or the protection or the call or the throw, it’s just about making plays. You keeping coming back to it and keep working it, and you’ll get it.”
Wisconsin’s offense is starting to get it. After coming up broke early in the season, they started to get their money against Purdue, and Houston was able to cash some metaphorical checks in Illinois. Still, there are some disturbing third-down trends, particularly in the running game, that need to be addressed if they want to keep cashing in on the money down moving forward.