While perhaps ultimately inconsequential, the University of Wisconsin defense looked a bit vulnerable for the first time all season when Northwestern scored two late touchdowns at Camp Randall Stadium last week.
It may be no coincidence that the Badgers’ 27 minutes, 13 seconds of possession on Saturday marked the least amount of time they held the ball since a loss at Michigan early last season.
“Last game was the most reps that we’ve had as a defense this season, and I think it kind of showed,” UW outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. "Some of us, I was part of it, kind of got fatigued at the end a little bit when they were running out of the no-huddle. We were out on the field for a long time."
UW ranked first nationally in time of possession last week and still sits at No. 5 after the Northwestern game.
Because of their run-first style, the Badgers typically hog the ball more than most. Their average of nearly 35 minutes per game last season was more than any other FBS team — just ahead of Navy’s triple-option offense — and they’ve ranked in the top six in time of possession six of the past eight years.
Last week marked just the third time that UW lost the time of possession battle since the start of last season.
For a defense that has ranked in the top five nationally in scoring defense each of the past two years, those type of numbers are much appreciated.
“The best defense is one that’s sitting on the sideline,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "It’s a blessing for us as a defense to have an offense that’s willing to run the football and chew clock up. The fact that they’re converting as many third downs as they are is huge for us because the more time for us on the sideline, the better."
UW coach Paul Chryst said he doesn’t believe time of possession directly translates to winning or losing. “Good football leads to winning and losing,” he said.
There is truth in that. Of the seven times the Badgers came up short in that area under Chryst, only two resulted in losses. And, of course, it’s certainly never bad to score a long touchdown and exit the field quicker in that manner.
Still, the way UW controls the clock can certainly affect games and relieve the Badgers’ defense, especially when they play against an up-tempo offense on the other sideline.
"Obviously, you want good drives and you want big plays,” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said, "but sometimes when you have to go 15 plays, it takes a lot of time off the clock and it lets your defense rest to get ready to get you the ball right back."
The Badgers have improved their third-down conversion rate this season, ranking seventh nationally at 51 percent, only enhancing their ability to keep the ball away from their opponents.
Turnovers — the stat Chryst said he may view as most important — certainly played a part in UW losing the time of possession battle against Northwestern last week. The Badgers threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half.
If the Badgers take care of the ball, though, their style of play will typically give them that advantage.
“I think (time of possession) is a byproduct (of the way we play), and I also think it’s something that’s super important,” Deiter said. “If you have the ball and you’re not turning it over, it’s impossible for the other team to score and it keeps your defense fresh. Having the ball in the offense’s hands, it just makes it easier to win football games."