Last week the Wisconsin Badgers picked up a much-needed road win over Illinois, and they now return home for a date with the Army Black Knights in another fascinating non-conference game. Army will present a whole host of new challenges than what Wisconsin has seen before with their triple-option attack. What does Wisconsin need to do to come away with a victory in this matchup?
Let’s take a look.
Sustain AND finish drives
Wisconsin football has struggled to get much going offensively this year, but we saw some glimmers of hope last week against Illinois as the Badgers were much better at keeping the chains moving, going 7-for-13 on third-down conversions. This week doing that again will be imperative to picking up a victory as possession in this contest will be incredibly limited based on the styles of play we will see.
Both Wisconsin and Army play a similar style of football, just in different ways. A key component of their play is winning the time of possession battle. Coming into this week these two teams rank in the top five in terms of time of possession with Army leading the nation and Wisconsin coming in at No. 4. Due to that, converting drives into points will be incredibly important. When you’ve got the ball, you’ve got to score because you don’t know how many times you’ll get it again so keeping drives alive is vital.
For Wisconsin’s offense, that has been a problem thus far. Coming into this week the Badgers rank No. 121 in the nation on third-down conversions, converting just 30% of the time. That mark will not get it done against an Army team like this. If Wisconsin wants to come away with a victory they’ll need to keep the chains moving by any means necessary and put points up when they’ve got the opportunity to do so. Neither of these teams are built to come from behind, so keeping the chains moving and turning drives into points will be vital for whoever wants to come away victorious.
Keep Army off schedule
Coming into this game you’ve got two units that bring strengths that will clash in this contest. On one side you have an Army offense that is second in the nation in rushing offense and they currently rank No. 12 in the nation in terms of third down conversion percentage. That is by far the highest mark Wisconsin’s defense has faced yet this year. For perspective, a run-heavy team like Michigan is ranked just No. 49 in that category so it’s a pretty significant gap.
On the other side, Wisconsin once again starts the week toward the top of every major rush defense category. They’re the nation’s top-run defense, the leader in defensive success rate, and top five in terms of line yards. They also rank third in defensive third down conversion percentage. Essentially, Wisconsin has dominated the line of scrimmage in every single contest this year and ended a lot of drives. It’s really an “immovable object meeting an unstoppable force” type of game. Something will have to give.
One way to force that give is to keep Army off schedule. Army’s offense is built to get to third and short and then convert, so if you can disrupt that schedule before they get to that spot the Wisconsin defense should have a lot of success. If you’re consistently playing to third and short you’re likely at a disadvantage.
However, if you can disrupt plays for negative yards on early downs you create a situation where Army gets out of its comfort zone. The Black Knights don’t want to be in downs like third and six. They want to get to those short-yardage spots that play to their system, so taking that away and forcing long runs or, God forbid, a pass would be a huge win for the Badger defense.
Play your assignment
Usually, this third point is something different from regular X’s and O’s, but when you’re going against a triple-option attack the defense gets two keys instead of just one. The other key in this contest will be for the defense to consistently play their assignments. If you’ve ever heard a commentator or coach talk about taking on a triple-option team you’ll often hear the mantra “play assignment football”. It is probably a simple way of looking at it, but it is true.
What formation the Badgers use doesn’t matter all that much compared to what they do in terms of their assignment. What you want to avoid is having defenders guessing and reading because that leads to mistakes. Instead, you want to have a a defense that has clear assignments and players that can stick to it for a full 60 minutes. If you’re playing the pitchman, you’ve got to play the pitchman.
The minute a defend wavers from his assignment is the minute that a big play can happen, so sticking to it for a full 60 minutes will be key. It’s a grind, and really a test on the defender's mental ability to consistently follow the directions provided.
Part of that will fall on the defenders, but another huge part over the course of this week will fall on Jim Leonhard. Leonhard has never faced a triple-option attack at Wisconsin, so seeing what he draws up will be fascinating. Leonhard loves to blitz, but that isn’t something that works against the triple. What he assigns to each player, and how those players execute it, will be crucial in this contest.