Playing the percentages: Badgers QBs know they have to improve completion rate

Wisconsin's passing struggles this season stick out as the single biggest hindrance on a team that excels in so many other areas.

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy each acknowledge a completion rate of 60 percent is deemed the general benchmark for success in most college football programs. Connect on three out of every five passes, they say, and you’ve got the makings of a special offense.

Of course, recognizing the importance of that statistic and actually achieving the feat have fallen into two entirely different categories for Wisconsin’s quarterbacks. Through eight games this season, Wisconsin has completed 54.2 percent of passes, which ranks 101st nationally out of 125 FBS teams.

"Obviously the passing game still has a lot more to clean up," McEvoy said. "But I think each game it’s showing that we’re getting closer and closer. I think it’s all about to pop in this little span we have of these games, which needs to happen."

UW’s next crack at improving its passing game will come Saturday when No. 25 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1) plays at Purdue (3-6, 1-4) at 11 a.m. CT.

Wisconsin’s passing struggles this season stick out as the single biggest hindrance on a team that excels in so many other areas. The Badgers possess the No. 2-ranked rushing offense in the country and are ranked No. 1 in total defense. But pinpointing the problem and finding a solution has not come easily.

McEvoy’s strength is as a running quarterback who can make the occasional short or intermediate throw. All season, he has struggled to consistently connect on longer passes. On Saturday against Rutgers, he overthrew receiver Alex Erickson on what would have been a 41-yard touchdown pass. McEvoy finished just 1 of 4 for six yards with two overthrows and an interception.

"That was a tough one," McEvoy said. "He was wide open. I’ve just got to loft it up there. It happens. You miss shots sometimes. But I’m not on a leash to miss shots. . . .

"Obviously if I hit receivers that are wide open in the end zone, that would help our percentage."

Stave, meanwhile, missed the first month of the regular season while battling confidence issues after losing out on the starting job to McEvoy. When McEvoy proved ineffective against Northwestern on Oct. 4, Stave played the second half and has been the team’s starting quarterback the past three games. McEvoy, whose completion rate is 57.7 percent, has rotated series as part of a newly formed two-quarterback system.

But Stave has not been the player Badgers fans saw in his first two seasons. Entering the year, Stave’s career completion percentage of 61.1 ranked fourth in program history. This season, he is hitting on only 48.4 percent of passes (31 of 64).

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Some of that dip could be attributed to rust or more likely the lack of an all-conference receiver like Jared Abbrederis, who was selected this May by the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Draft. Only Erickson has more than seven catches among Wisconsin’s wide receiver group this season.

Stave, however, pointed to the team’s inability to convert on third downs as a possible reason for the decreased accuracy rate. The Badgers currently rank 90th nationally in third-down conversion rate (37.0 percent).

"I’ve started three games now this year," Stave said. "We haven’t put it up all that much. Sometimes, third-and-11, third-and-12, those aren’t easy situations to just throw a nice easy completion. I think it’s just a matter of getting into a rhythm, completing a couple passes on early downs and stuff like that and really being able to open up the play-action pass game.

"That’s where you can start to find some completions early and completions often and stay out of those third-and-long situations where maybe you can check it down, things like that, and get a completion. But when you’re trying to convert it and drive it down the field, it’s not as easy to come by."

This season marks Wisconsin’s lowest overall completion percentage since 2008 — a team Badgers fans may recall needed three missed extra points from Cal Poly in the regular-season finale just to ensure a bowl game appearance.

Since 2009, Wisconsin hasn’t produced a season with a completion rate of worse than 58.4 percent, which occurred in 2012 when Stave supplanted Danny O’Brien as the starter four games into his freshman season. Four out of the past five seasons have featured Badgers teams that finished with a completion rate of at least 61.1 percent.

There certainly is no right way to win college football games, and Wisconsin is in position to win the Big Ten West division despite an inconsistent passing attack. But consider that of the 56 FBS teams with a completion rate of at least 60 percent this season, 39 have winning records. Those 56 teams also have a combined record this season of 281-188 (.599 winning percentage).

"Completion percentage is important," Stave said. "You’ve got to complete balls. If I could get back up to 60 percent, anywhere above that I’d say is a pretty good benchmark for a quarterback."

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