Flexibility and the Pro Style Offense

I have said before that Wisconsin's offense (under Chryst) resembles Notre Dame's offense (under Weis), but with key personnel differences. Whereas Notre Dame has top-end quarterback talent, the Badgers have relied on a punishing rushing attack. Or at least so goes the theory. The Blue-Gray Sky, an excellent Notre Dame football blog, just published an expose of at least one of the problems with the Notre Dame offense, here.

You'll note their discussion of the packages Notre Dame runs; they look a lot like the ones we run. The three biggest under Weis have been: (1) 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB; (2) 2 WR, 2 TE, 1 RB; and (3) 2 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB, 1 FB. Same as us. Now this is no great revelation; those are your traditional pro sets.

The big problem BGS identifies with Notre Dame's offensive production is predictability. Sound familiar? In their case, losing the ability to field two-tight end sets made them much more predictable. Especially because no one respected their run game. That should sound familiar, too, if an inverse of our problem last year. Injuries limited our ability to field the two-tight end set, no one respected our passing game. As a result we were very predictable. The key isn’t necessarily the two-tight end set; it’s flexibility, but the two-tight end set helps create flexibility.

Oddly, 2005 may have been the panacea for both teams' offenses. The Irish had Quinn going to Stovall and Samardzija, along with Fasano at tight end and Darius Walker as the running back. All of those guys are pro athletes now (Samardzija is a Cub, but the rest are in the League, as are several of their lineman). It was a good year for the Badgers, too, with Stocco, Williams and Orr, Daniels, and Calhoun. A step down in talent at QB and WR, but pretty solid players. And what did both offenses have? Flexibility. Quality receiving threats, including at TE, quality running backs, and quality quarterbacks running the show. Just like Notre Dame, in 2005 we were versatile.
Stocco threw the ball 46% of the time on first down.[i] When Stocco was dealing with 9 new starters on the offense, in 2006,[ii] he was down to passing only 40% of the time on first down.

There's another piece, hinted at above: other than the quarterback, who's on the field? From '05 to '06, Stocco lost all of his "skill position" players. Not surprisingly, even with a quality quarterback, Chryst got a little more conservative, and went to the running game a little more often, and in the passing game, it was all tight ends, all the time. Well, almost. Of the 53 passing plays I could identify the receiver, 51% were to tight ends (Beckum and Crooks), 47% to WRs (Hubbard and Swan; only 3 to backs). Contrast that with '05, when Stocco went to his receivers 57% of the time, and his other throws were evenly divided between his backs (mostly Calhoun) and his tight ends (mostly Daniels).

Moving on to 2007, Donovan is under center, and the other skill players are the same: Hubbard, Swan, Beckum, Graham (Crooks was injured most of the season) and Hill. On first down?[iii] Passing 41% of the time; about the same as Stocco with the same lineup. And Donovan's targets overall? 49% tight ends, only 41% to the receivers. The remaining 10% went to backs. Not surprising that Chryst would have a first year starter throwing more to check downs than Stocco, a three-year starter.

And then we get to 2008. Not unlike the Irish in 2008, there was only one thing we could do well: run the ball (ND couldn’t do that; they passed the ball well). Our tight ends were dinged up and our down field threat was, let’s say . . . limited. So, on first down Evridge passes only 25% of the time, and Sherer only passed 23% of the time.[iv] That’s awfully one-dimensional.

Where did the 2008 passing plays go? Evridge threw to his tight ends (54%) and his backs (9%), with just 37% of his throws to wide receivers. Sherer, in contrast, found his receivers (53%) and his tight ends 43%, with only two throws to his backs (4%). For both, a tight end was the leading receiver (Beckum, then Graham, respectively; injuries to both playing a role), but Sherer spread the ball around more to his receivers.[v] Regardless of who was catching the ball, the Badgers relied too much on the run. The lack of flexibility translated to predictability.

Which leads us to Spring 2009. Coming back to the offense may be a better set of weapons than we had in 2005. At tailback we have the punishing Clay (more fleet of foot than Hill, by a fair margin), “all-around” Zach Brown, and either Erik Smith or Montee Ball (when he matriculates in the Fall). The wide receivers are likely led by Isaac Anderson, but Nick Toon has been flashing his skills of late, David Gilreath is a big-play threat, and Kyle Jefferson isn’t far behind Toon. With Garrett Graham back along with Mickey Turner and H-backish Lance Kendricks, we’re well stocked at tight end. That’s a lot of skill on the offense by Badger football standards.

That leaves the same gaping question: the quarterback.

And that leads me back to Sherer vs. Phillips and Budmayr. We need someone who can manage a complex offense. As much as Budmayr may be a future star, a true freshman with one Spring camp under his belt, isn’t likely to do it. Not unless we want a repeat of last year’s single dimensional offense. So, Phillips and Sherer.[vi] It doesn’t come down to who throws the better spiral or who has the bigger cannon for an arm. It’s the guy that can best spread it around. He needs to understand the variety in the offense, and he needs to get the ball there.

As Bielema said the other day, Sherer has a clear advantage in understanding the offense. 2009 will be his 5th season with the Chyrst playbook vs. Phillips’s second (and last season Phillips was mostly running the scout team). That means Phillips has to be that much better than Sherer at getting the ball to his receivers.[vii] Can he be? I’d say it’s a tough hill to climb.

At this point, I’d say the odds should be on Sherer, and the fans should be happy about it. He’s already shown that he’s capable of spreading the ball around. If he can lock down a little more throwing consistency, he could be a solid game manager. And that’s all we really need to return flexibility to the Badger offense.

And two-tight end sets.

[i] Evaluating three competitive games in ’05: Michigan, Iowa, and Auburn.

[ii] Against Penn State, Arkansas, and Illinois.

[iii] Against Illinois, Michigan State, and Iowa.

[iv] When not in the 2-minute drill. Evridge is against Fresno State and Ohio State; Sherer is against Illinois and Minnesota.

[v] Keeping in mind that these statistics are just from two competitive games, it’s tough to extrapolate too much, but in those games Sherer found Graham 14 times, Anderson 11 times, Gilreath 9, and Beckum 6 (who didn’t play against Minnes0ta). Evridge was more reliant on Beckum (who wouldn’t be). Against Ohio State he went to all the wide receivers a total of seven times (or at least got the ball close enough for them to be identified as the intended target), but he went to Beckum 8 times; Kendricks and Turner 4 more, then 3 more to Hill (all 3 incomplete). Against Fresno State, even with Beckum dinged up, Evridge went to him 7 times; Graham 4. Again, not much to the receivers: Anderson once, Gilreath x3, Jefferson x2, and Moore x2.

This isn’t entirely fair to Evridge. With two healthy tight ends, against Illinois, Sherer mostly used them (Graham x10, Beckum x6 vs. Gilreath x4 and Anderson x2). When he was down to only one nominally first stringer (Graham), he spread the ball around to all the receivers (Anderson x9, Gilreath x5, Toon x4 vs. Graham x4 and Hill x2).

[vi] It’s unfair that I’m not including Tolzien, but I have yet to see a report that indicates he’s a serious contender to start.

[vii] Phillips’ running ability is nice, but we have capable backs and we don’t run a spread option.

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