The calculations run through Chris Orr’s mind quickly, like a computer processing information and predicting an outcome.
Orr, a senior middle linebacker for the University of Wisconsin football team, takes in all the available data in front of him to make a sound, educated assumption on what an opposing offense might try on a particular play.
“If you’re playing there, or if they’re playing here, what might they do? If our offense scores first, what might they do? Their tendencies that they’ve shown all season, what might they do on first down? All of that comes into play,” Orr said.
“But at the end of the day, it’s lining up, reading your keys, and making a play when it happens. You don’t really know, but you can have an idea.”
Orr and his defensive teammates have had a pretty good idea of what’s coming on third down this season. The eighth-ranked Badgers boast the Football Bowl Subdivision’s second-best third-down conversion rate allowed at 15.9% (11 of 69).
Northwestern had the best day against UW on third down with four conversions on 20 tries. Between the second half of their game against Central Michigan and the first half against the Wildcats, the Badgers had a string of 28 consecutive third-down stops, including stopping all 10 of Michigan’s attempts. Opponents have needed an average of 8.5 yards on third down — UW has allowed just one conversion of 9 yards or more, and that play came in the opener against South Florida.
One caveat to mention: UW has allowed four third-down conversions via penalty, but those plays don’t count against the statistics.
UW (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) puts these numbers on the line when it hosts Michigan State (4-2, 1-1) in its Homecoming game Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
“We just go in and follow the game plan. We know on third down, we want to challenge and we want to get after those guys. It’s paying off. That’s something that we’ve had to work on from last year. That was a really big emphasis — third downs, and getting off the field and getting the offense back on the field,” sophomore cornerback Faion Hicks said.
“I think we’ve done a good job so far, and I think we will continue to do a good job throughout the season.”
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Becoming a strong third-down defense starts with being successful on first and second down. UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has been able to dial up pressure on third down when he wants to, and those chances present themselves more when the distances to gain are longer.
Stopping the run has been a key element to this trend for the Badgers. UW is second in FBS with 47.6 rushing yards per game allowed, and tied for second in FBS with 1.8 yards per carry allowed.
“Some teams have gotten us in third-and-short situations and we’ve still managed to get off the field because we’ve done a great job of stopping the run in those down and distances,” Leonhard said. “When we haven’t won on first and second down, we’ve still managed to stop the run on third down and get off the field.”
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All three levels of the defense have played a role in the success on third down.
UW has 21 sacks through five games, two more than all of last season. All but two of those sacks have come from defensive linemen or linebackers. Leonhard feeling comfortable sending pressure shows confidence in the secondary, which is bouncing back after a shaky 2018.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said senior leaders like Orr and Zack Baun are playing at a high level, and are challenging the defense to continue its stellar play.
“Certainly there’s been a good plan, and a plan I think that’s favorable to our guys, understanding who our players are. They’re believing in it. Our players know it, they believe it, which allows you to cut it loose,” he said. “And that’s what’s also fun about it, you know you’re going to be tested each week differently.”
Keeping this third-down pace will be difficult. Playing Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa’s offenses in the span of five weeks will test all aspects of the defense. But if the Badgers can somehow continue their level of play on third downs, they could threaten the program’s third-down record of 27.9% set in 2016.
Hicks said controlling third down is a way to control momentum throughout a game, and has become a point of pride for the defense.
“Before we step on the field, Chris Orr makes sure he tells us, ‘Every time, three-and-out, three-and-out.’ That’s something that we want to do,” Hicks said. “That’s something that we emphasize. And if they do convert, we try not to let that happen again throughout the drive.”