Third down is an opportunity for the defense to get off the field, stop the offense's progress and get the ball back to its productive offense. Through the first six games of the season, Wisconsin has been making defenses work, ranking first offensively (60.3 percent) on third downs. Michigan State hasn't been making opposing defenses work hard enough, as the Spartans currently ranked 83rd offensively (37.7 percent success) in the country on third downs.
Wisconsin will be the first to say that those stats don't mean anything. The Spartans gained speed last weekend by going 7-of-14 on third downs in their 28-14 upset over No.11 Michigan. In Wisconsin's last regular-season loss, the Spartans went 9-of-18 on third down, including converting three on the final drive, to seal a 34-24 victory on Oct. 2, 2010.
From a defensive perspective, third-down defense is one of the top goals for No.4 Wisconsin when it heads back to East Lansing to take on No.15 Michigan State Saturday.
"The main thing is they just execute," senior cornerback Antonio Fenelus said of Michigan State. "That's where we struggled at last year with them, not executing on those third downs and them hitting those crossing routes and little short routes. We need to make sure we handle that this week."
Last year was full of unsuccessful adjustments against quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Spartans. Completing 83.3 percent (10-of-12) of his passes after second down, Cousins helps the Spartans rack up 168 of their 444 total yards on third down alone.
Cousins is back in his third season as starter, and the senior has completed 65.9 percent of his passes for 1,317 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. Against Michigan, Cousins was 7-of-9 for 70 yards, four first downs and a touchdown on third down, successful numbers because the MSU offensive line gave Cousins plenty of time and didn't allow a sack all game.
A year ago, Michigan State torched Wisconsin with the big pay on third down, as three conversions went for at least 23 yards, and the Badgers could only manage two sacks.
"It starts up front," defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. "They are doing a good job of protecting (Cousins). They aren't giving up a lot of sacks, and he's doing a good job of knowing what coverages people are going to be in and what to expect. They have good receivers that can catch the ball and guys that can get open. It's a good combination."
For Wisconsin's defense, it's a familiar combination, according to sophomore Chris Borland. With a team that likes to feature the run between the tackles and use the play-action pass off some of those looks, the Spartans bring a similar pro-style offense that Wisconsin has worked against daily in practice since the fall.
"They are very similar to (us) with a lot of pre-snap motions and a lot of the same plays and personnel groupings," Borland said. "They do a good job of running the ball, which always make you vulnerable to play action. We've gotten good work in practice going against our offense and our scouts."
While Michigan State has proved that can get effective at moving the ball on third down, the Spartans defense has shown it has no problem stopping it. After holding the Wolverines to just 3-of-15 on third downs, the Spartans improved their national ranking to sixth, giving up a third down just 27.5 percent of the time.
In comparison, Wisconsin is ranked 17 (31.7 percent) and has been a major part of the defense's success. Last Saturday the UW defense stopped 12 out of 14 third down plays against Indiana, an 85.7 percent defensive success rate.
"We make a big deal on third down," said Ash. "It's very important down to get off the field and get the ball back for the offense and our guys understand that first and foremost. Guys aren't making a lot of mistakes on third downs and we're not making a lot of calls where there are a lot of adjustments that need to be done."
With impressive statistics added to the charts each game this year, the Badgers look to continue their unstoppable streak by fixing one of the things that burned them last year. Improvement has been constant at practice, and the proof will be on the field if the Badgers have learned how contain the Spartans' viable attack.
"The theme of the whole program is daily improvement, weekly improvement, and so far our guys are doing it in secondary and defense," said Ash. "They are coming out to work hard every single day, putting in a lot of overtime and it's showing on game day."