Should the Wisconsin Badgers pass more on 1st down? Is the offense too predictable? Let's take a deep dive into play-by-play data to figure out how this team has performed on 1st down.
Wisconsin runs on 72% of first downs during the Big Ten schedule. Outside of first down Wisconsin has run 143 times to 101 passes, or a 58.6% run rate. Their run rate is tremendously skewed, but it's what many announcers will tell you a team with Wisconsin's personnel will need to do to win games. They need to "establish the run." Is this true?
Here are Wisconsin's 1st down run splits for Big Ten play: 172 carries/ 1,336 yards/ 7.77 yards per carry/ 4 fumbles/ 34 1st downs or touchdowns. A successful play, as defined by Bill Connelly of SB Nation, gains 50% of the needed yardage on 1st down. In general, if you're picking up 5 or more yards on 1st down, you're ahead of schedule, so to speak.
UW's overall success rate this season is 51.3%, ranking 4th in the nation. Wisconsin's rushing success rate on 1st down is even better-- 55.8%. This is an outstanding percentage of runs that gain 5 or more yards. With nearly three quarters of 1st down plays being a run, you might think that teams see this coming and blitz or load the box, resulting in a high percentage of plays with a loss of yards.
That's not the case. Wisconsin has gained zero or negative yards on only 6 out of 172 runs in Big Ten play. That's an incredible stuff rate of only 3.5%. Wisconsin's overall stuff rate is at 9.2% and ranks 1st in the nation. That 3.5% is incredible, given that teams know UW likes to run on first down.
This philosophy grinds down a defense and could result in increased effectiveness as the game wears on. But what is the opportunity cost?
One answer is obvious to many Badger fans: the sustained success required to run the ball down the field necessitates a disciplined offense. Penalties will kill drives. Negative plays will kill drives. Big plays are harder to come by running the ball, so successes need to be stacked on top of one another. This is harder to do.
Of those 172 runs on first down in Big Ten play, only 9 have gone for 20 yards or more, 5.2% of plays. Wisconsin's overall big play rate (20+ yards) for the season is 8%. It's hard to generate chunk plays on the ground.
So, where do Wisconsin's drives end? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is found in the unsuccessful plays, those gaining fewer than five yards. 75 of Wisconsin's first down runs have gained fewer than five yards. Of those 75 plays, 31 have been runs where no subsequent first down was gained. The big takeaway: when the Badgers gain fewer than five yards on first down runs, the drive ends 41% of the time.
Running the ball on 1st down is surprisingly successful for Wisconsin. What about passing the ball?
On 1st downs in Big Ten play, the Badgers pass, as stated, about 28% of the time. The splits are: 43-68/ 498 yards/ 7 TD/ 3 int/ 1 fumble/ 3 sacks/ 16 1st downs.
The success rate for passing on first down stands at 55.9%, which is right where the Badgers were at running the ball (55.8% success rate). So again, passes gain 5 or more yards on 55.9% of drop backs. The Badgers gain 7.3 yards per attempt passing the ball on first down, which is actually lower than their running yards per carry (7.77 ypc). However, this number is much higher than Alex Hornibrook and Jack Coan's yards per attempt numbers on the entire season, 6.9 and 4.3 yard per attempt, respectively.
The passing comes with the risk of negative plays, which can kill drives. Wisconsin quarterbacks have been sacked on 1st down in Big Ten play only three times, which equals 4.4%. This is much lower than their overall sack rate, which stands around 7.6% on the season. The turnover rate on first down is 5.9% when passing the football.
The upshot of passing is big plays, and 6 of those 68 passes have gone for 20 or more yards (8.8%) compared to 5.2% running on first down. A whopping 34% of first down passes gained a first down or a touchdown in Big Ten play. Rushing the ball resulted in a first down or touchdown 19% of the time.
Let's also look at the unsuccessful passes on first down. There were 29 plays deemed unsuccessful on first down, and of those passes, 15 ended the drive and resulted in no subsequent first downs. These included 10 incompletions, 1 sack, and 3 interceptions. Three penalties also occurred on second or third down on those drives. Thus, 52% of unsuccessful first down passes resulted in the end of the drive.
It would seem Wisconsin's offense begins and ends on first down. Barring turnovers or penalties, a successful play on first down is very likely (about 55% of plays gain 5 or more yards), while the result of an unsuccessful play is often the end of the drive (52% of passes and 41% of rushes ended in a punt, turnover on downs, or field goal).
We might ask why this team has the seeming foundation of a successful Wisconsin offense (tremendous efficiency running the ball--Wisconsin's rushing S&P+ ranks 2nd in the nation this season, 24th last sesason), but nonetheless has disappointed this season. UW's explosiveness ranking (Bill C's isoPPP) has dropped from 80 in 2017 to 107 this season.
Perhaps the biggest point is that Wisconsin's third down passing has regressed. Last year's behind the sticks passing was outstanding. 7th in the nation in passing downs S&P+, 8th in passing downs success rate. It's simple, really. Last year's Wisconsin could make up for unsuccessful plays on early downs with passing conversions. This year's passing downs S&P+ ranks 45th in the nation, and the overall passing S&P ranks 71st.
It seems then, that while playing Minnesota this weekend, like most all of this season, success will hinge on first down.