Wisconsin Defense A Huge Challenge To Notre Dame Offense
In three playoff games across the past three years, the Notre Dame offense has scored a combined 27 points. And while Saturday’s clash versus Wisconsin is not a playoff game, the Badgers boast a championship-level defense. Coming in as 5.5 point underdogs, the Irish will need to crack that stingy defense in order to improve to 4-0. Through two games, Wisconsin has produced some incredibly impressive statistics, despite their 1-1 record, and they present numerous challenges for the Notre Dame offense.
Time Of Possession
In both games of the 2021 season, Wisconsin has possessed the ball for more than 40 minutes of the game. They’ve given up just two offensive touchdowns, as they force opponents to make magic happen in a limited amount of time. Part of that time of possession advantage starts with the offense’s strong rushing attack – possessing the ball for long intervals of time. But the defense plays a significant role as well. The Badgers’ defense has taken the field 11 times in the first half this year, forcing 3 & Outs on nine occasions. They’re yet to give up a first-half point.
While they’ve averaged 33.3 points per game, the Notre Dame offense has undergone several worrisome lulls. From a slow start against Purdue to a bad finish against Florida State, or a lethargic middle two quarters versus Toledo, the Irish haven’t been as consistent against inferior defenses. Against Wisconsin, Notre Dame can not afford these lulls. They don’t even want to settle for field goals. Getting the ball moving against Wisconsin is a rare opportunity, and the Irish need to take advantage and punch it into the end zone.
The Irish got their running game untracked a little bit against Purdue, but it’s still not anywhere close to what it looked like in 2020. Wisconsin’s notoriously stingy front has been ridiculous in 2021, giving up an average of 33 rushing yards per game. The Irish certainly want to get running back Kyren Williams going in this one, opening up the play-action pass with some deep shots. But that’s a tall task. Can the Irish offensive line, which looked much improved in the second half against Purdue, at least get some push against the Badgers in the trenches? If the holes are there, Williams can find them. But Wisconsin is a difficult defense to attack with a balanced offensive game plan.
On paper, Wisconsin has the edge. That puts pressure on offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to find creative ways to spark the run game. Whether that’s getting freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner some looks in the running game, providing two-back looks that utilize Williams and Chris Tyree, or multiple tight-end sets that give the Irish some extra blockers. Rees has been criticized for some vanilla play calling at times, and he can’t afford that against Wisconsin.
This was one area where the Notre Dame offense took a step back against Purdue. After going 14-31 on 3rd down in their first two games, the Irish were just 4-17 against the Boilermakers. The Badgers have been exceptional on third down, holding opponents to a 5-24 success rate. As aforementioned, promising drives are going to be at a premium in this game, and the Irish need to be able to move the chains on third down.
Part of that starts with solid first and second-down play calling to put the Irish in manageable third-down situations. If they don’t, then Rees has less of the playbook at his disposal. Tight end Michael Mayer has been a frequent third-down target during his time with the Irish. But the Badgers have one of the best linebacker corps in the country that may be able to limit him and force quarterback Jack Coan to look elsewhere. If Mayer can drag the linebackers down underneath, then that could open up things for Williams or wide receiver Avery Davis in the slot. Jet sweeps with speedsters Tyree and Braden Lenzy could also be a different and effective look. Regardless of how he does it, Rees needs to dial up a few creative calls to keep drives alive and give the defense some time to rest.
Notre Dame Offense Keys To Success
“Success” may look different offensively in this game. While Notre Dame is used to scoring a lot of points, it would take a shocking effort to come close to their season average on Saturday. The goal should be somewhere in the vicinity of 24 points and then rely on a strong defensive effort against a mediocre Wisconsin offense. But that’s easier said than done. Wisconsin gave up just 16 to Penn State in a six-point loss. They gave up seven points to Eastern Michigan, but those came on a pick-six. So what does Notre Dame need to do in order to gain those 24 points?
Break off Two To Three big plays
Looking at Penn State’s three scoring drives, big plays were a common theme. The Nittany Lions were frequently forced off the field without a first down, and they gained just 297 yards of offense. But one touchdown came on a 49-yard pass. Another was sparked by a 42-yard pass, and a game-tying field goal was set up by a 34-yard run. That right there was nearly 40% of Penn State’s offensive yardage, but it gave them what they needed to edge out the Badgers.
The Irish have shown the ability to break off big gainers this season. Against Purdue, for better or for worse, their offense was extremely boom-or-bust. Davis had a 62-yard touchdown reception, Williams had scoring plays of 51 and 39 yards. Against Toledo, the Notre Dame offense featured several big plays – Tyree made a house call from 55 yards out, Kevin Austin made a 34-yard reception on the game-winning drive, and Williams chugged 43 yards for a score. So while the offense has been inconsistent, the big play has been a spark for the Irish, and that’s exactly what they’ll need against the Badgers.
Activate Michael Mayer
Wisconsin’s linebacker room is very deep and very talented. They’re a big reason why the Badgers’ 3-4 defense is so effective at stopping the run. However, the Irish have a great answer for that in Mayer. Mayer needs to be targeted early in order to force the Wisconsin linebackers to respect his prowess in the passing game. If the Irish establish Mayer as a viable threat early, then either the linebackers drop a little, opening up avenues for Williams and Tyree, or the safeties crash, opening up the seams for potential big plays to Davis, Austin, or Lenzy.
Mayer was strangely quiet against Purdue, collecting just one catch for five yards. It was nice to see the Irish offense be effective without him, but they’ll want him to make his presence known on Saturday.
Go For It On Fourth down
Moving the ball against Wisconsin is brutally tough. Not finishing drives is even tougher. If Notre Dame gets the ball moving even a little bit, they have to be prepared to enter four-down territory earlier than normal. If the ball passes midfield, the Irish should be thinking about using all four downs. The defense has improved, and head coach Brian Kelly can trust that unit. But if Notre Dame is punting from inside Wisconsin territory, that’s going to be a huge morale blow and a tough hit to absorb.
If Notre Dame is thinking along these lines, it could give Rees more freedom. On 3rd and 7, he can call for a 4-5 yard slant that sets up a manageable fourth down. Notre Dame expects a lot from their offense on a weekly basis, but they have to understand the context of this game and the ferocity of the defense they are facing. Missed opportunities or a passive approach could be the death knell to the Irish’s hopes.