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Offense sputters in Wisconsin’s loss to BYU

Key elements contribute to the upset.

New Mexico v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

MADISON—If someone told you before Saturday’s game that Wisconsin would amass 394 yards of total offense, including over 200 yards rushing, you probably would have a predicted a Badgers victory.

Instead, Wisconsin suffered a 24-21 upset loss to BYU, its first non-conference home loss since 2003. It was a total team failure and despite the yardage numbers in the box score, the offense struggled mightily at times, failing to pick up a defense that was on its heels for wide stretches of the game.

Here are some of the key issues on offense that led to the upset.

Failed to covert third downs

The Badgers ran 71 plays on the day, but only managed to convert 4-of-13 third down opportunities. Wisconsin mitigated this a bit by moving the chains on two of three on fourth down attempts, but the Badgers struggled to sustain drives all game long.

This not only impacted the rhythm of the offense, but it also put pressure on a defense that was struggling with BYU’s rushing schemes. The tone was set with Danny Davis’s drop on the first play of the first drive of the game, and the offense continued to sputter throughout.

Couldn’t hit the big play

For all of Wisconsin’s reputation as a ground and pound team, creating big plays has been a staple of Paul Chryst’s offenses. Against New Mexico, Wisconsin showcased several big plays, including A.J. Taylor’s 28-yard (one-handed) and 44-yard catches, Jonathan Taylor’s 43-yard run and Alec Ingold’s 39-yard dash.

Between BYU’s scheme and their own execution, Wisconsin’s biggest plays were a Garrett Groshek 31-yard run and a 27-yard Jake Ferguson catch. No UW wide receivers had a catch longer than 18 yards and Jonathan Taylor stayed bottled up with a long run of 15 yards. Taylor also dropped a screen pass that could have gone for a significant chunk of yardage on a drive that ultimately ended with Ingold’s second touchdown of the season.

With the Cougars taking away the home run, it would have been interesting to see if Wisconsin could have changed things up with pace. The Badgers had a great deal of success in the two-minute drill during the game’s final drive and pace may have shook loose the malaise that settled over the offense over long stretches.

Penalties and turnovers

Close games often come down to who makes the fewest mental errors and Saturday was no exception.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has developed a reputation as a confident and competent signal caller who is good for one or two really egregious errors a game. Against the Cougars he made two serious judgement errors—an intentional grounding penalty in the first half that nearly turned into a pick-six and a poorly thrown third-quarter interception that led to BYU’s third touchdown.

Wisconsin committed six penalties, four on offense. That included Hornibrook’s intentional grounding, a first down brought back by a David Edwards hold and a very achievable 4th-and-1 that turned into a failed 4th-and-6 due to a Kyle Penniston false start. For a team that prides itself on its mental edge, Wisconsin was uncharacteristically sloppy and unfocused.

Offensive line play

Wisconsin’s success starts in the trenches and on paper Saturday’s offensive line performance looks ok. The Badgers rolled up over 200 yards rushing and three rushing touchdowns. But the Badgers averaged 4.7 yards per carry, a season low. BYU managed to get pressure on Hornibrook, grabbing two sacks. The Cougars also seemed more physical than Wisconsin, and the Badgers did not get their typical push up front.

After the game, head coach Paul Chryst spoke to a third quarter drive that saw four-fifths of the starting offensive line on the sideline [ed. note: that includes Cole Van Lanen in the lineup, who is listed as a co-starter but Jon Dietzen got the nod to start at left tackle on Saturday]. Chryst acknowledged that there was a combination of the heat, an attempt to create a “spark” similar to swapping running backs and the players earning the right to play.

Wisconsin saw some success with the wholesale unit change until Penniston’s false start penalty pushed Wisconsin back out of a very manageable fourth down.

With injury to blocking tight end Zander Neuville, Penniston and the other tight ends may be asked to do more. Against Iowa, Wisconsin may also consider greater usage of jumbo packages with offensive linemen serving as tight ends. The Badgers used such packages several times against the Cougars to some success.