Paul Chryst puts focus on red-zone, third-down efficiency

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Jeff Potrykus, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 1, 2015

MADISON—Although he was a bit overwhelmed as a freshman walk-on in 2011, quarterback Joel Stave did notice something telling about Paul Chryst, who was in his final season as Wisconsin's offensive coordinator.

“He loves red-zone work,” Stave said. “When it is red-zone day he gets all fired up. That is his thing.

“He knows the importance of the red zone. He gave us a stat that 60 percent or 65 percent of the points are scored in the red zone.

“So that is what you need to do to win games. He really puts a lot of emphasis on red zone.”

Chryst, in his first season as UW's head coach, is like most play-callers who have developed impressive resumés. He is a stickler for detail, and during his last run at UW (2005-11) the combination of precision and having a unit full of playmakers allowed the Badgers to flourish in the red zone and on third downs.

In 2010 under Chryst, UW scored on 91.2 percent of its trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line (62 of 68) with 54 touchdowns. The Badgers finished second in the Big Ten and fourth nationally.

UW scored on 94.7 percent of its red-zone trips in 2011 (71 of 75) with 64 touchdowns, which led the Big Ten and finished second nationally.

In the three seasons since—when Chryst was the head coach at Pittsburgh—UW's average finish in red-zone proficiency was sixth in the Big Ten and 46th nationally.

Tight ends coach Mickey Turner was a four-year letter-winner at UW (2006-09). He played tight end but also lined up at fullback because Chryst routinely used multiple tight ends.

According to Turner, Chryst understands no magic potion exists that guarantees red-zone success.

Rather, the head coach stresses not turning the ball over, not losing yards on first down and making a play when given the opportunity.

“It is just not beating yourself,” Turner said. “Like turnovers, they'll kill you. Or a negative play can knock you out of field-goal range.

“Paul's big thing is just making plays. And it makes sense because it is such a condensed field that the room for error is that much smaller.”

The throwing windows for quarterbacks are smaller. The receivers generally have less time to secure the catch before feeling the sting of a defender.

UW had studs at every offensive position in 2010 and 2011. Quarterbacks Scott Tolzien (2010) and Russell Wilson (2011) were talented, smart and decisive.

“It comes down to playmakers,” said UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who was the Badgers' tight ends coach from 2008 through 2011. “I think if you are smart with the volume you put on them and you hope that they own the plays within the variations they see.

“And if they do, I think you give a guy a chance to make a play. And if you can give them the chance to make it and they make it consistently, it is pretty fun.

“That is what you had those years.”

UW enjoyed similar success on third downs when Chryst called the shots.

UW converted 50.3 percent of its third-down chances (73 of 145) in 2010. That was the No. 1 mark in the Big Ten and ninth nationally.

UW converted 54.3 percent of its third-down chances (93 of 170) in 2011. That was No. 1 nationally.

In the three seasons since, UW's average success rate on third downs was ninth in the Big Ten and 77th nationally.

“One of his things is that you've got to understand you're not going to be 100 percent on third downs,” Turner said. “The defense is going to get some plays.

“But if you can stay manageable on first and second down you can get the ones you're supposed to.”

Turner remembers Chryst's philosophy.

“You should never lose on third and short,” Turner said. “Third and 1 or 2, the way we run the ball and the way we (view) our program, we should be able to get 1 or 2 yards.

“Third and 3 to 6 yards, be consistent. You should be able to get a lot of those. Not all of them, but a lot.

“And third and long, make the ones that are there.”

Alabama last season finished 72nd nationally in red-zone defense. Opponents scored on 84.1 percent of their chances (37 of 44) but managed only 17 touchdowns—four rushing and 13 passing. The Crimson Tide finished 41st nationally in third-down defense by limiting opponents to a conversion rate of 37.8 percent.

UW this season should have at least one difference-maker—at wide receiver, tailback, fullback and tight end—on the field at all times.

Stave knows he will bear some of the pressure and responsibility to help UW improve its red-zone and third-down numbers this season.

“He says that is where quarterbacks make their money on third down and in the red zone,” Stave said of Chryst. “That is where you've got to be great.”

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