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The anatomy of an upset: Is there hope for a Badgers win in Indianapolis?

Wisconsin needs to be ultra aggressive to have a chance, even if it might facilitate a blowout.

Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Well, your B1G West champion No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (10-2 overall, 7-2 B1G) take on the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-0 overall, 9-0 B1G) tomorrow in the B1G championship game.

The Badgers are pretty serious underdogs here, as the Buckeyes are about 16.5 point favorites. If Wisconsin pulls off the upset, this could very well be the biggest victory in program history.

Let’s take a look at some of the common aspects of big upsets and how the Badgers may or may not be up to the task.

Fan Sentiment

Before we get into the details, let’s talk about how people are feeling heading into this one. Before the first Ohio State game and earlier this week, I posted a twitter poll, which of course is known for scientific accuracy.

Anyways, the tool was consistent from six weeks ago to now, so it is interesting to compare the poll results. We asked the same question both times with the same options: “How are #Badgers fans feeling about Saturday’s football game against OSU? Optimism - Apathy - Dread - Other.” And, here are the results.

Fan sentiment from Week 8 to Week 15

"How are Badgers fans feeling about Saturday's football game against OSU?" Optimism Apathy Dread Other
"How are Badgers fans feeling about Saturday's football game against OSU?" Optimism Apathy Dread Other
October 25, 2019 33% 16% 44% 7%
B1G Championship game 30% 21% 39% 10%
Difference -3% +5% -5% +3%

A quick Chi-Squared test confirms (p-value = .001) that this data suggests fan sentiment has shifted in the last month and a half. However, this shift has been rather small. Folks seem to be slightly more apathetic, less optimistic and are not dreading this game quite as much, but the ordinal ranking of the responses remain the same.

You can run through the twitter replies yourself, but here are a few highlights from our followers’ written responses to the poll:

  • “The glass is always half full” — @runrunpasspunt
  • “I don’t expect the Badgers to win Saturday, but I am really excited. A few TOs and we could make it interesting.” — @jzenk52
  • “Zero shot. But I’m pessimistically hopefull.” — @CheesenCrumpets
  • ::GIF of Michael Scott saying ‘All I can do right now is put on a brave face.’:: — @ReinMan23
  • “Something between apathy and optimism? Like I fully expect it to be better than in Columbus, but I also don’t care if Wisconsin loses again to OSU after curb stomping Minnesota.” — @TSPeth5
  • “I fully expect to lose, and if we win, I will be ecstatic. But I’m not apathetic about it. It’s a weird feeling for me not stressing so much over the outcome.” @TheFromaster

Wisconsin is in a really strange spot. It has definitely earned a spot in the top 10, but absolutely nobody outside of Wisconsin is giving the Badgers a chance. The gap between Wisconsin and Ohio State is not as big as the gap between Virginia and Clemson, but both games appear impossible on paper.

Alright, so if Wisconsin is going to pull this thing off, what is it going to need to do? Well, I’m done with grad school now, so why not start off with a literature review because I have not been punished enough.

Literature Review


I don’t know why I thought “the anatomy of an upset” was clever, but when I googled it, I found hundreds of articles.

I’m unique, just like everyone else.

After wading through a ton of nonsense, I found four resources that did a nice job talking about what has to go right for an underdog to win.

Instructional findings:

Finding 1: Be aggressive

College Football Nerds bring this up all the time on their channel (although they are not alone in these resources). They point out a common mistake coaches make: trying to keep the game close.

Warning: paragraph about chess incoming.

This is the exact same thing in chess. The clearer the game is, the stronger player knows how to play you. Weaker chess players often try to play conservatively to avoid big mistakes, but instead the stronger player makes small improvements over forty moves and ends up with an insurmountable advantage. The one time I beat a Grandmaster, it was because I played an aggressive opening and keep the game dynamic. My position was worse, but I gave the GM opportunities to make mistakes.

We are done talking about chess now.

This is the key here: you have to give the other team opportunities to make mistakes. If you curl up into a ball, you may keep the game artificially close, but you will never have a chance to actually score more points. If you play ultra-aggressive, you’ll tend to lose by more points, but one out of ten times the stars will align and you will find an edge.

College Football Nerds assessed the October 26 meeting between Wisconsin and Ohio State as an overly-passive strategy, saying that Wisconsin relied on Jonathan Taylor too much and died a “death by a thousand cuts.” They also noticed that Taylor ran the ball more than Coan threw it against Ohio State. Further, they contrasted that with the Minnesota game when Coan threw the ball more than Taylor ran it.

My colleague Tyler Hunt thinks that Wisconsin will indeed be more aggressive this time around:

“In this game, I expect the Badgers to continue with the aggressive to give themselves a shot. Punts and field goals aren’t going to win this game, so when the opportunity calls, take your shots.”

I want to believe this, I really do. However, I perceive that Paul Chryst gets most aggressive against teams like Michigan and Minnesota that are closer in ability to Wisconsin, and he becomes more passive against teams like Illinois, Northwestern and Ohio State. Basically, I perceive Chryst coaching more aggressively against teams within one standard deviation of the Badgers and less aggressive against teams further away from Wisconsin in ability for better or worse.

Further, Chryst might decide that Wisconsin’s best realistic outcome is a Rose Bowl. In this case, he might try to just shorten the game and keep it close. Hunt noted this as well:

“Sure Wisconsin can try to keep it close to back into a Rose Bowl, or they can be aggressive and let the chips fall where they may. I fully expect the Badgers to do the latter, and I cannot wait to see it. Shock the world boys.”

I’m not as optimistic that Wisconsin will go all-out, but I sure hope Tyler is right. We will know early on what kind of game this is.

Finding 2: Highlight mismatches in counter-intuitive ways

I am not the expert in this, or else I would be making hundreds of thousands a year as an offensive coordinator. However, I will try ton take a stab at this.

I think the key mismatch is finding ways to get Taylor the ball out in space, preferably with one-on-one coverage by a linebacker. It’s clear that Wisconsin has struggled to get Taylor into these situations out of conventional run plays, so Chryst will need to use Taylor in some new packages.

Let’s go off the wall here. How about Wisconsin running spread looks out of the 22 personnel with Taylor lined out wide and maybe Mason Stokke, Nakia Watson or Garret Groshek in the backfield? Or, how about 11 personnel that lines up five wide?

Feel free to comment how these are stupid ideas, but I think it’s this type of thinking that could produce a successful game if it is filtered through a smarter schematic mind than mine.

Finding 3: Success on obvious passing situations

In Football Study Hall’s series on “anatomy of an upset,” Bill Connelly looked at two big upsets form 2007: Appalachian State’s victory over Michigan and UL-Monroe’s victory over Alabama. Additionally, Ian Boyd added a piece to the series on Houston’s 2016 upset win over Oklahoma.

The key thing to learn about these posts is each game went quite differently. For some turnovers were key, for some it wasn’t. For some total yardage was important, for some it wasn’t. And so on, and so on.

However, each of these upsets featured consistent success by the underdog in obvious passing situations.

That’s it. Success on obvious passing situations is important.

Moving on.

Finding 4: Game-changing plays: turnovers and explosive plays

Ohio State is going to out-gain Wisconsin. If Wisconsin gains 150 yards in a quarter, you want that 150 yards to be mostly spread between few significant plays instead of being sprinkled over five 30-yard drives that end in punts or field goals.

Further, turnovers can neutralize Ohio State’s offensive production. A fifty yard drive becomes a thought experiment when it ends in a fumble.

You probably knew this, but turnovers and explosive plays are important.

Finding 5: Field goals instead of touchdowns

Again, Ohio State is going to out-gain Wisconsin. When Ohio State makes it into the red zone, Wisconsin has to force several field goals.

Ohio State averages 4.8 red zone scoring attempts each game. Ohio State is the second best team in the country in terms of red zone touchdown percentage at 86%. That means, on average Ohio State scores 30.91 red zone points per game.

This is an easy stat to turn around—it only takes a handful of successful defensive plays to change Ohio State’s effective red zone touchdown percentage.

First, Wisconsin needs to not allow any scores without Ohio State coming through the red zone. Next, it needs to cut Ohio State’s red zone touchdown percentage from 86% to about 25%. While the percentage drop is significant, that is only three more red zone stops over the course of a game. That is difficult yet achievable.

Assume Ohio State makes it into the red zone five times against Wisconsin. If Ohio State follows its season average for red zone production, that would turn into 31 Buckeye points. However, if Wisconsin can make four red zone stops instead of only one, that drops Ohio State down to 19 red zone points.

Three extra red zone stops would decrease Ohio State’s scoring by 12 points, which is almost 75% of the spread.

What it means for Saturday

Each of these findings are about increasing variance: upwards for Wisconsin (taking more chances, success on passing downs and turnovers) and downwards for Ohio State (field goals instead of turnovers and strange mismatches).

It’s a million-to-one shot, but it’s a chance Wisconsin gets to take.