Paul Chryst could sense he needed to give his offense a change-up.
When you have a star tailback such as Jonathan Taylor, it’s difficult to fault Chryst and the University of Wisconsin football team’s coaching staff for giving him as many chances to run as possible, especially on first downs. But Chryst and Co. showed a wrinkle to the offense Saturday in their 48-0 win against Kent State at Camp Randall Stadium.
With the starting offense on the field, UW used play-action nine times on first down, using the defense’s desire to slow down Taylor against it. Granted, the Golden Flashes didn’t have success against Taylor as he tallied 189 rushing yards and tied a program record with five total touchdowns, but UW’s ability to kick-start drives with play-action passes will be important in the coming weeks.
Starting with Saturday’s homecoming game against Michigan State, the eighth-ranked Badgers (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) face Illinois, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 17 Iowa in the next five weeks.
The Buckeyes and Hawkeyes rank in the top five in the Football Subdivision in points allowed, and the top 15 in rushing yards allowed per game.
Taylor knows how much more dangerous an effective play-action attack can make UW’s offense.
“I think it’ll be huge. In the past, we’ve been more traditionally run (on first down). So it’s going to make defenses play honest,” Taylor said. “They don’t know if it’s going to be a play-action, they don’t know if it’s going to be a run.”
Junior quarterback Jack Coan played six drives against the Golden Flashes, all of which resulted in touchdowns. Before being relieved by freshman Graham Mertz for most of the second half, Coan completed 12 of 15 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Six of those completions, including both touchdowns, and 88 of those yards came off play-action fakes.
Those numbers had a chance to be even better — junior Quintez Cephus had a deep shot down the sideline go off his hands in the first quarter and Kendric Pryor was interfered with on what would’ve been a 34-yard touchdown.
Coan was, unofficially, pressured on just one of his play-action pass attempts, and the fakes allowed his receivers to get down the field.
“Protection was good, and guys were getting open. That takes a lot of pressure off of a quarterback when those things happen,” said Chryst, whose team is 5-0 for the second time in his tenure.
Senior receiver A.J. Taylor caught a 21-yard pass on the first play of the game after a run fake. Coan connected with Pryor on a deep crossing route for a 33-yard gain on the first play of a drive late in the second quarter. It started a four-play scoring drive that put UW up 28-0 at halftime.
Coan, who struggled to get passes down the field against Northwestern, said the play-action fakes drew Kent State’s safeties toward the line of scrimmage and created good matchups for his receivers.
“Whenever you can get the safeties low and get one-on-ones on the edges, it’s good to throw it downfield and give your guys a chance,” Coan said.
UW knows the competition is going to be tougher than Kent State (2-3) moving forward. Improving its play-action passing game and making it a more consistent threat gives the Badgers a wider variety of ways to attack more talented defenses.
“I think that’s really what makes the play-action passes work, and gives us the confidence to make it work, is the way we run the ball,” A.J. Taylor said. “The way ‘J.T.’ runs the ball, the way our line blocks for him. Everybody’s really coming together and working hard for each other, and I think that’s what makes the play-action so good.”