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October 7, 2009

Impressive third down success guides UW offense

MADISON, Wis. - Let me set the scene.

It was midway through the second quarter in the Big Ten conference opener against Michigan State. Wisconsin had a 14-7 lead and was in the process of moving the ball into MSU territory.

After a Scott Tolzien pass sailed over the head of Isaac Anderson, the Badgers were faced with a third and nine situation.

Needing to pick up a sizeable chunk of yardage to keep the drive going, Tolzien approached the huddle with a calm but direct attitude. And the result was a 14-yard completion to David Gilreath and a Badger first down.

"I like that Scott mind taps us a lot," UW junior left guard John Moffitt said. "He gives us the, 'Hey, it's third down. We've got to do this.' He gives little clues into things like sell the run and this and that.

"I think we have a lot of offensive momentum once we get going."

In that same drive, the Badgers were facing yet another third down situation only three plays later. This time, after Tolzien's pass to Nick Toon fell incomplete on second down, UW had the task of picking up a third and five or settling for a 43-yard field goal.

Tolzien took the snap, dropped back, progressed through his reads and withstood the Spartan blitz just long enough to deliver the ball to Garrett Graham. Graham caught it just shy of the sticks but fought for just enough yardage to move the chains.

The drive was extended again.

"Just (view) it as a critical down just to keep the chains moving," Tolzien said. "You know, to keep our offense on the field and keep their offense off the field. It gets our offense in a rhythm."

Three plays after the Graham first down, John Clay capped off a 12-play, 69-yard drive with a touchdown knowing full well that the drive could have very easily been cut off at seven plays and 24 yards and gone scoreless without the third down conversions.

Instead, UW opened a 21-7 lead and eventually won the game 38-30.

By now, people that watch Badger football must be getting used to third-down success because that is the way the Wisconsin offense has been operating this season.

Wisconsin has converted 56.3 percent (36-of-64) of its third-down chances in 2009. That statistic is good for tops in the Big Ten and third in the country.

It's a telling stat, too, in that even the extended drives that fail to produce scores keep the UW defense off the field a bit longer and provide much needed rest. And with a fresh defense, the offense gets to see the field that much more.

So, no matter the situation, the UW offense approaches third downs with a bit of an emphasis on that particular play and down making the drive. It can be third and 13 or third and 3, but the approach is largely the same.

"I think the mindset is maybe a little bit different just because there's probably more of a threat of a run on third and three rather than third and 13," Tolzien said. "But at the same time, you're just trying to move the chains whatever it takes."

A season ago, the Badgers saw plenty of drives whimper to a close with a 38 percent third-down conversion rate. Not only was that number near the bottom of the league, it also disallowed several chances for the offense to put points on the board.

The result, among other things, was a team that didn't win its fifth game until week 10 of the season. But now, in 2009, Wisconsin has five wins through five weeks.

One of the main reasons for that turnaround is the play of Tolzien, and his pocket presence. On third down alone Tolzien has completed 29-of-41 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns. Of those 41 attempts, 23 were good for a first down or touchdown.

When you look even deeper into that statistic, Tolzien is 23-of-29 when facing third and less than 10 with three scores. Because he is able to stand in the pocket and withstand the hit, he has been able to reap the benefits and rewards of moving the chains.

"I think after the season I'm just going to take him to the doctor and get his head checked," Moffitt said. "I think he's a little off. I don't think he realizes what it feels like to get hit. I don't know if he feels it. I don't know what his deal is."

Tolzien is also very smart. In last week's game against Minnesota, the junior quarterback was running all alone when offensive coordinator Paul Chryst called a naked bootleg.

Tolzien faked the handoff, rolled out to his left and rumbled 47 yards before he was brought down inside the Gopher 10 yard line. Though it looked as though he would have a chance to score, one of Minnesota's defensive backs was closing in on him fast.

So, instead of trying to exhaustedly reach the end zone, Tolzien covered the ball and happily set up the score.

"You watch him run down the field and what does he do?," Moffitt said. "Ball security. He wraps it up. We're going to get the touchdown and that's important, but losing the ball is not a good thing. That's a testament to the kind of player he is.

"He's smart and that's what you need in a quarterback."

And that intellect and knack for moving the chains will keep this Big Ten leading offense rolling as the season progresses.


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