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Wisconsin football: a look at the Badgers use of pre-snap motion in 2021

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After rewatching the first two games, let’s dive deep into an important aspect of the Wisconsin offense.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Penn State at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers have a well-established identity on offense. For the past thirty years, the Badgers have relied upon a historically strong run game behind their massive offensive line to then set up their play-action passing attack. Pretty simple, right?

A key fixture of Paul Chryst’s offense has traditionally been the use of pre-snap motion. In fact, defensive coordinators across the country have, traditionally, called out how difficult it can be to prepare for Wisconsin’s offensive scheme because of the divergent style and use of pre-snap motion.

Most fans can easily point to the use of jet-motion where there is a wide receiver or other skill position player motioning across the formation and either receiving a handoff from the quarterback or acting as a decoy. I mean who can forget the 2012 Big Ten Championship game (‘sup, Nebraska)?

Penn State v Wisconsin
Kendric Pryor is one of the Badgers top threats on offense and has been used historically with jet sweeps.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

So far in 2021, there has not been a lot of pre-snap movement by the Badgers. Upon rewatch, I counted ten instances where there was motion before the snap against Penn State and only one play against Eastern Michigan. Of those 11 snaps, nine of them have included jet motion by my count. The lone use of motion against Eastern Michigan featured Jack Dunn faking the jet sweep, while Wisconsin handed off the jet sweep three times for 27 yards against Penn State, and used the motion as a decoy six times.

However, the subtle motion of a tight end or fullback can result in a numbers advantage for the offense, while also moving the eyes of an onlooking defender, or tip-off the intentions of the defense based on shifts. This is the motion that the Badgers are using less often than expected. In total, I counted only four times where there was pre-snap motion that was not a wide receiver jetting across the formation.

So the next logical question is...why?

There are multiple possible answers to this question, so let’s run through some potential theories in an attempt to figure out this phenomenon.

Is it a timing issue?

I think everyone can remember last season and the signal issues that the Badgers had with getting plays into the huddle from the sideline. QB Graham Mertz had to physically run over to the sideline the majority of the time to get the play-call, which in turn limited the ability for the offense to have time to run pre-snap motion. This was due to Wisconsin’s signs being the same as in 2019 with the pandemic, so opposing defenses were able to “steal” them.

This season that is no longer the issue, in my opinion, for a couple of reasons.

  1. Stating the obvious: Mertz is no longer running to the sideline to get the play, and the Badgers are signaling the play calls in like normal.
  2. Against both Eastern Michigan (11.81 seconds) and Penn State (11.46 seconds), Wisconsin averaged over 11 seconds remaining on the play clock at the time of the snap when I charted it out. That leaves more than enough time for pre-snap motion.

I think we can safely scratch time off the list.

Is it personnel-based?

One of the possible reasons for the lack of motion could be personnel-related. For example, in 2019 the Badgers were extremely thin at tight end, which reduced some of their formations and motion capabilities. That season they used more three wide receiver sets, and multiple fullbacks with Mason Stokke and John Chenal both seeing time as capable blockers.

To this point, there have not been any major injuries to the tight end (assuming Jack Eschenbach is good to go moving forward after getting dinged in the Eastern Michigan game), fullback, or wide receiver positions. Additionally, there is depth at all three positions this year, with players who have been in the program for multiple seasons.

Because of this, I have a hard time believing that reduced motion is solely based on the needs or understanding of the skill players.

Is it because of Graham Mertz?

Many have assumed that the reason for the lack of motion could be related to starting quarterback Graham Mertz.

I’m not buying that entirely either for a few reasons.

  1. While Mertz played poorly in the opener, he has been in the program for three seasons now and does have the playbook down. According to a former teammate, Mertz has one of the highest football IQs they have seen as well.
  2. I noticed plenty of formation shifts and motion in the fall practices I saw.
  3. The use of motion can actually be incredibly valuable to a quarterback in reading the defense and coverages. One concrete example that fans will recognize right away is when Wisconsin (or any college/NFL team) motions a back out of the backfield with the fullback or running back moving out wide as a receiving threat. How the defense covers the back gives the quarterback significant information about what type of coverage the defense might be using.

So then...what is it?

In addition to re-watching the Penn State and Eastern Michigan games, I also went back and re-watched the opener in 2019 against South Florida for the sake of comparison.

I chose that game because there were some natural parallels. Firstly, Jack Coan and Graham Mertz had played a somewhat similar number of games in each of their situations, and the offense had a full off-season, that included spring practice, to prepare. The Badgers were similarly breaking in some new faces on the offensive line in that game as well. While South Florida was not as talented as Penn State, it was a true road game to open the season after a letdown the year prior.

In watching the USF game, I noticed the Badgers use pre-snap motion 10 times in total. Jet motion was used seven times, there was one case of the tight end, fullback, and wide receiver shifting all together in unison, and then there were two times where the wide receiver bumped in as an adjustment before either delivering a crack block or going out on a passing route. The breakdown is nearly identical to the game against Penn State, and I have a theory why.

It is the first couple of games of a new season.

Traditionally at this juncture, teams are still trying to create an identity and shake off some rust. The offensive game plan is usually relatively simple as they adjust to the speed of the game and look to play both confident and fast. A quick look around college football in Week 1 displayed that defenses were generally ahead of offenses, which was not a surprise.

In all honesty, the Badgers did not need to use motion to beat Eastern Michigan. They used a thin playbook and allowed their offensive line to lean on a much smaller and less talented team, and push them around.

Eastern Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Against Penn State, they didn’t either. A lack of motion didn’t cost them that game. They moved the ball between the twenties consistently against Penn State. Mistakes in the red zone is what killed them in that game.

I went into this exercise expecting to see that Wisconsin was using far fewer motion than normal, but I think those wrinkles come with repetition and practice. The difference this season is that the Badgers opened up against a ranked conference opponent instead of South Florida, which amplifies our reactions or overreactions.

Make no mistake, Wisconsin has things they need to clean up on the offensive end. I don’t necessarily think that the use of pre-snap motion will be much different this year as time goes on. With two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame, I expect to see Wisconsin implement more motion and creativity ahead of that game at Soldier Field.

After all, Week 3 of 2019 brought us the hippo package in anticipation of Michigan, and I speak for everyone when I say: that was awesome. Let’s all wait before we completely give up on Chryst and this offense. There is a lot of season remaining.