While the Badgers have great coaching, and some great players, they are not unbeatable....last season they had an 8-5 record.
When watching their film and reviewing stats, some trends began to emerge. Let’s look at these trends and see what the Bulls need to do to beat the Badgers.
General Game Management
Dave Marino was the first head coach that I ever worked under. He played at Rutgers, spent some time as a quality control coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, won state titles as an assistant and became the head coach at Palmetto High School in Palmetto, FL. He is a master of the fundamentals and one of the best coaches I have ever been around.
There were two areas of the game he constantly stressed to his players and assistant coaches: turnovers and third downs. His thought was that if you could win those two areas in a game you would statistically be giving yourself the best chance to win. The 2018 Wisconsin Badger football team (and a lot of other statistical studies) proved this theory to be quite accurate.
When looking at the overall numbers for turnovers and third downs, Wisconsin was a slightly above average team. Offensively, they converted 41.3% of third downs for a national ranking of 50th. Defensively, their 37.6% allowed conversion rate was 55th in the country. In turnover margin they were 63rd. None of these numbers are cause for real concern, nor celebration. However, if you dig a little deeper, there are some interesting tidbits to be found.
I went through every box score from the 2018 Wisconsin season. I then grouped the games by wins and losses. Upon closer inspection, a clear, unsurprising pattern appears.
In their eight wins, Wisconsin converted 49.5% of third downs offensively. Over a full season, this rate would have ranked in the top ten nationally near offensive juggernauts Alabama and Oklahoma. Defensively, Wisconsin held opponents to a 34% third down conversion rate in their eight wins. This number would have ranked in the 20’s nationally near defensive guru Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs. The Badgers also had a turnover differential of +1.25 in their wins. This per game number would have ranked third nationally last season.
In the Badgers’ five losses the numbers were quite different. In losses, Wisconsin’s defense allowed opponents to convert 40% of third downs. This figure would have ranked in the high 70’s nationally near teams like Duke and Old Dominion. This figure obviously isn’t great, but it’s just slightly below average. The next two figures are the ones that really tell the tale. In their losses, Wisconsin’s offense converted only 29% of third down attempts. This rate would have ranked 128th (out of 130) nationally. The turnover battle did not fare any better. Wisconsin was -1.8 in turnover differential in their five losses. This number would have been dead last nationally. And while turnovers can be somewhat random, Wisconsin turned the ball over at a very high rate offensively. In fact, they ranked 107th in the country last year in total turnovers committed.
While it may sound obvious, turnover differential and third down conversions will go a long way in determining the winner of game one.
USF Defense vs. Wisconsin Offense
The biggest disparity between the wins and losses for Wisconsin last season came on the offensive side of the ball. The defense also performed worse in losses, but the difference on offense was enormous. This is probably where the game will be won or lost.
Wisconsin loves to run the ball. This isn’t a mind-blowing statement. They will get in a lot of 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end), 12 (1 back, 2 tight end) and even some 22 (2 backs, 2 tight end) personnel groupings. They don’t use these personnel groupings to spread you out and run the Air Raid. They want to run the ball right at you.
Another non-surprising statement: to beat Wisconsin, you must stop the run. While this seems obvious, the numbers do bear this out. Wisconsin’s five losses last season also coincided with their five lowest rushing yardage totals. Last season, if you could stop the run you could stop the Badgers offense. The inability (relatively) to run the ball in losses contributes to the third down conversion issue addressed previously.
Wisconsin is an offense that is built to stay on schedule. When an offense stays on schedule, they are putting themselves in a third down distance that is manageable. The chance to convert a third-and-two is much higher than a third-and-nine.
A typical Badger drive may look something like this:
1st and 10- 6 yd rush
2nd and 4- 3 yd rush
3rd and 1- 3 yd rush
When Wisconsin is playing well, they are keeping themselves on schedule. This allows them to run the ball more and convert third downs. When they get “off schedule”, as in their losses, they have trouble converting third downs and staying on the field.
The efficiency stats from the S&P+ back this up. Last season, Wisconsin ranked third in rushing efficiency. Meanwhile, they ranked 80th in passing and 93rd in the offensive explosiveness rating, IsoPP.
So how can the Bulls get Wisconsin off schedule? My suggestion is to sell out for the run on first down.
I went through the Wisconsin play-by-play data from last season and looked at all their first downs. For the season in its entirety, Wisconsin ran the ball on 78% of all first downs not taking place within the final two minutes of a half. The last three games of the season, two of which were started by presumed 2019 starter Jack Coan, the Badgers ran the ball on 89% of all non-two minute first downs. I would call this a strong tendency.
Armed with this knowledge, I would absolutely load up the box on first down. Play man coverage on the outside and dare the Badgers to throw. Especially if the defensive backs are performing as well as practice reports indicate. If you can get Wisconsin into some second-and-long or third-and-long situations, you are now playing the game on your terms.
Michigan used this strategy in their game last season. Below are the first two plays of the game. On the first play, Michigan basically has nine players in the box with the corners playing man on the outside. Wisconsin runs for four yards.
On second down, Michigan comes out with nine players within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Wisconsin runs for no gain and is then unable to convert the third-and-six on the ensuing play.
A fellow coach used to always say, “we make tendencies to break tendencies”. While this may be true, and Wisconsin may come out and throw more on first down, I would still rather load up for the 80% probability than play it safe for the 20% probability.
If you can make the Badgers throw the ball more, you can beat them. In their wins last year, they had a 70/30 run/pass split. In losses they were 56/44 and averaged 16 fewer rushing attempts than in their wins. While most of this responsibility falls on the USF defense, there is something the offense can do to help.
USF Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense
Based on last season, the biggest difference between winning and losing for the Badgers was their offensive performance. While we addressed how the USF defense may try to slow Wisconsin down, what can the USF offense do to help this cause?
I think the USF offense must come out aggressive early and take some shots downfield. If the Bulls can get up early in the game, the Wisconsin offense may be forced to leave their comfort zone.
While the Wisconsin defense is well coached and talented, there have been opportunities for explosive plays against them in the past. Let’s look at a play that gave them trouble in that past that the Bulls likely have in their repertoire.
Wisconsin plays multiple coverages on defense. They will play some man coverage, but mostly a mix of one-high and two-high zone. In the 2017 Orange Bowl, Miami was able to get the outside receiver open deep several times using the “Mills” concept against Wisconsin’s two-high safety looks.
“Mills” is a two-receiver concept made famous by Steve Spurrier. It involves a “high/low” on the safety. The concept’s popularity has increased with more defenses using two high safety looks. The outside receiver will run a deep, vertical post route over the top of the safety. The number two receiver will run a dig or curl route right in front of the safety. With many safeties being responsible for the number two receiver if he goes vertical, this dig/curl is enough to occupy his eyes. As the safety steps up there is a large window left open behind him.
Miami has the ball first-and-ten on their own 42 yard line. They come out in 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) personnel with two receivers on the left and a split tight end and receiver on the right of the formation.
Below is the “Mills” play art. The outside receiver has the post and number two has the curl/dig. The quarterback has eyes on the safety (white arrow).
Post-snap you can see that the safety has his eyes focused on the number two receiver. The outside linebacker to his side is also carrying him vertically looking to wall him off from coming inside.
From a different angle you can see what happens when the number two receiver makes his break inside. The safety is beginning to drive on the inside route while the outside receiver runs into the void created behind him.
The result of the safety’s decision (black arrow) is a receiver open 40+ yards downfield.
Because of a poor throw, the Miami receiver must slow down. He still catches the ball for a 48 yard gain but is tackled immediately.
A better throw would have been a touchdown. Miami ran “Mills”, or a version of it, three times in this game. They had the 48 yard gain you see above. They also got a defensive pass interference call and threw an interception on a missed defensive pass interference call combined with a poor throw. The outside receiver was open every time.
Much to the chagrin of Al Davis’ ghost, an offense can not live off deep shots alone. The Bulls will need to find ways to sustain drives. Last year’s film may give us some clues on how to do that.
Last year, Wisconsin seemed to struggle against pre-snap motion. BYU used a lot of motion in their early season upset of the Badgers. Purdue and Minnesota both used a good bit of it in their games later in the year to create big plays. Let’s check out a few examples from the Purdue game.
In this first example, Purdue has the ball first-and-ten at the Wisconsin 18 yard line. The Boilermakers have 11 personnel on the field with two receivers to the left and a stand-up tight end and receiver (covered by the graphic) to the right. Wisconsin is in a one-high safety look.
The inside receiver on the left will go in motion and the safety/nickel rolled down over top of him will rotate back to the deep middle. The deep safety isn’t quite sure what to do so he rotates toward the motion slightly.
One thing that Wisconsin loves to do is leave two linebackers in the box. They will vacate occasionally based on formation or play call, but mostly those two will stay right there (the guys they had playing there last year were both awesome. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, they will both need to be replaced this season). Purdue knows that Wisconsin prefers this alignment and will use the motion to gain an advantage. Below, you can see the box linebackers (yellow box) and the safeties reacting to the motion. Purdue’s left tackle will invite the defensive end to pass rush outside. The left guard will release up the field and outside the tackle to get an angle on the box linebacker to his side. The back (yellow line) will follow his guard on a quick screen.
The safety that was originally over the inside receiver has vacated the area (white arrow). The motion gets the box linebackers to move just enough to get themselves out of position. One of the box linebackers (black arrow) recognizes what is happening but can’t get through the traffic after his moment of indecision. The guard has a great angle on the other linebacker with the back running into open space behind him. The receiver up top has run his corner completely off screen.
The back makes the catch while the guard makes the block. The back turns up with a lot of open running room.
The back goes on to score and is untouched until he is about to reach the goal line. The two that finally get to him: the safeties that shifted with the pre-snap motion.
Purdue uses motion again later in the game for another big play. Purdue has the ball first-and-ten on the 12 yard line. They have the same basic formation as the previous play but flipped. Two receivers on the right of the formation and a stand-up tight end and receiver on the left. Wisconsin is showing the exact same look on defense.
The inside receiver, now on the right side of the formation, will go in motion. Instead of rotating back to the middle, the safety/nickel (31) will run across the field with the motion. He will again leave a large hole in his wake. Purdue will attack the same area of the field as the previous play, except this time with a run play. Instead of free releasing on screen, the right guard will double team with his center working up to the box linebacker to his side. The right tackle will block the end one-on-one, while the left tackle and guard will double team up to the box linebacker on their side.
Both guards are able to get up to the box linebackers and take them out of the play. The back runs through the arm tackle of the defensive end (17) as the middle of the field safety scrambles back into the play.
The safety is running full speed to try to get into position and the back cuts back against the safety’s momentum for a walk-in touchdown.
In addition to motion, there was one other schematic wrinkle I really liked from Wisconsin’s opponents. A few of Wisconsin’s opponents came out in 11 personnel and got into a Trips Open formation opposite a nub tight end. All that means is a tight end attached on one side of the formation by himself and three receivers on the other side. Below is Miami in the formation in the Pinstripe Bowl from last season.
This formation is tough on defenses because it presents a running strength to the tight end side and a passing strength to the three-receiver side. The way Wisconsin has lined up to this formation in the past presents some interesting opportunities for the offense. The Bulls were in this formation in the Spring game. It may be something we see against the Badgers.
Last year, the Wisconsin defense didn’t play up to their normal standards. There was one common trait to the offenses that gave the Badgers trouble. They all ran the spread or incorporated spread principles into their offenses. Even in their wins against Nebraska and Purdue, Wisconsin gave up 518 and 462 yards respectively. A lot of the offenses that gave Wisconsin trouble also incorporated tempo. Fortunately, as we discussed previously, the new USF offense fits the profile.
Can the Bulls Win?
First games are always difficult to gauge. I’ve gone through camps where the defense is just dominant. I recall thinking that I guess our offense was going to be a little down that season. Come to find out, after thrashing somebody in game one, that our defense is just really good. I’ve also had the inverse happen. You never really know what you’ve got until you play somebody else.
Luckily for USF, Wisconsin will be playing their first game as well. And they will be playing on the road, replacing a lot of productive players. And they will hopefully be playing on a hot, humid night after practicing in the mid to high 70s all camp.
When looking at how the Badgers performed last season, you can see a path to victory for the Bulls. Be aggressive early. Sell out for the run. Get the Wisconsin offense off schedule. Generate some explosive plays on offense and some turnovers on defense. Play the game at your tempo.
The Bulls have enough talent to win this game. Three of Wisconsin’s losses last year (Northwestern, Minnesota, & BYU) came to teams that had a similar average rating on the 247 team talent composite to that of USF. The average score in those games was 31-18.
There is a path for USF, but it will not be easy. Looking at last season can only be so predictive. Wisconsin will be a different team than they were last year, but so will USF. And nobody will know how good either of them may be until a little over a week from now.
So, will the Bulls beat the Badgers? Maybe.