The University of Wisconsin football team went as its offense did throughout the regular season.
When the unit struggled to score early in the season and gave away turnovers, UW fell to 1-3. As the unit got back to basics and leaned on the ground game with freshman running back Braelon Allen and junior Chez Mellusi, things got a bit better and led to wins against good teams such as Iowa and Purdue. The offense even carried the team to a win against Nebraska.
But last week’s 23-13 loss at Minnesota was a reversion back to the early season in which the Badgers couldn’t get the run game going and quarterback Graham Mertz struggled with accuracy, leading to an 8-4 finish to the regular season.
Throughout the year, the State Journal has tracked the usage of personnel packages, pre-snap motion and other data with the aid of Pro Football Focus to provide insight on what the Badgers are presenting to opponents. The State Journal’s data includes 839 snaps, more than the number of total plays the Badgers are credited for this year (809), because it counts snaps with mid-play penalties such as holding and pass interference.
Here’s a look at a few of the trends that are worthy of attention.
11 dominates personnel usage
For at least the third year in a row, the Badgers used 11 personnel — one back, one tight end and three receivers — more frequently than any other grouping. UW was in 11 personnel 39.2% of the time and it was their favored grouping on third down and passing situations. The Badgers didn’t run a snap with four or more receivers on the field, though that’s understandable with a tight end that draws as much attention from defenses as Jake Ferguson.
UW used 12 (one back, two tight ends) on nearly 27% of its snaps this year and 21 (two backs, one tight end) on just over 21% of its snaps. The only other personnel grouping to register over 5% was 22 (two backs, two tight ends) at 6.9%, and it was most frequently used in short-yardage situations or inside the opponents’ 10-yard line.
Over the last two games of the regular season, UW significantly increased its use of an extra lineman. Most often it was redshirt freshman Tanor Bortolini playing the extra tackle/tight end role, but junior Cormac Sampson also was involved in that role. Against Nebraska and Minnesota, the Badgers used at least six linemen on 22 snaps, accounting for 47.8% of such snaps this year. Although he wasn’t listed on injury reports, fullback John Chenal’s snap counts went from an average in the high 30s to the low teens, so his usage must’ve been impacted by a health issue.
If Chenal doesn’t use his extra year of eligibility, the Badgers will need to find multiple fullbacks to fill that position next season. Chenal was the lone fullback for the final five games of the season after Quan Easterling chose to transfer. UW used a fullback on about one-third (32.2%) of its snaps.
Pre-snap motion bounced back
Early in the season, the Badgers were stagnant before the snap. Only 11 of the team’s first 172 tracked plays featured pre-snap motion. Starting with the Notre Dame game, UW ran pre-snap motion on 32% of its tracked snaps to finish the year just under 27%.
Pre-snap motion is important for an offense because it forces a defense to adjust to a change in the offense’s formational strength and can get a defense to declare its coverages.
Tight end and fullback motions were the most frequently used pre-snap motions for the Badgers. Jet motions, ones in which receivers come parallel to the line of scrimmage and can take a handoff, were the second-most used, but the jet sweep wasn’t featured as much in the offense as it has been in previous seasons. Receivers combined for 14 rushing attempts and UW didn’t run a true jet sweep over the last month of the season. Senior receiver Danny Davis took a handoff against Minnesota, but his motion took him further behind the line than a traditional jet sweep and into more of an orbit motion look.
Exceedingly run-heavy on first down
The Badgers ran the ball on 213 of the 288 first downs they had, 74% of the time.
UW gained an average of 5.5 yards on first-down run plays, which ranked fourth in the Big Ten, per PFF. The offense also was fourth in the conference in yards per first-down pass play (9.0).
With the strength of Allen, a second-team All-Big Ten pick, and an offensive line that featured five all-conference honorees, running the ball makes sense. UW also was effective using play-action on first downs partially because defenses knew how reliant the unit was on first-down runs.
PFF data tracked Mertz as using play-action on 60 of his 289 dropbacks, or 20.8% of the time. He completed 63.3% of those passes, according to PFF, which was 7 percentage points higher than his completion percentage on non-play-action dropbacks. About one-third of Mertz’s yardage (633 of 1,821) came off play-action and he threw three touchdowns and no interceptions off play-action.
Their first-down run/pass split got skewed some during some of the lopsided games such as against Rutgers and Northwestern, but the Badgers leaned heavily on first-down runs essentially until the score dictated they couldn’t throughout the year.