The tallest task for Wisconsin's defense against No. 3 Ohio State is tall enough without knowing how truly tall it is.
The statistics say OSU is converting a national-best 56.1% of its third downs entering its Saturday noon kick against the 13th-ranked Badgers.
That's not wrong.
It's just not the whole story.
The number is actually better...much better, with starting quarterback Justin Fields in the game against Big Ten defenses.
Now might be a good time for Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to look away, because without the end-of-game situations in which OSU's backups have played out the string, the Buckeyes' starting offense has converted 28-of-43 third-down plays.
That's a 65% success rate against Indiana (5-of-7), Nebraska (8-of-11), Michigan State (8-of-14) and Northwestern (7-of-11) until Fields had OSU so far in front he stood on the sidelines to watch the finish.
"He can hurt you in a number of different ways," Chryst said of the Buckeyes' quarterback. "He's a very good passer and a good runner. And he makes everyone play the whole play. Everywhere on the field, you have to play the whole play."
MSU and Northwestern found that out in OSU's most-recent victories.
The Spartans had success early, sacking Fields twice, before he broke free on another first-quarter third-down play for a 35-yard scramble.
That gave MSU's defense something else to think about, and OSU proceeded score on its next three possessions to extend a 10-0 lead to 27-10 by halftime.
Northwestern had Fields in third-and-7, third-and-15 and third-and-8 in the first quarter. He scrambled away for 10 yards to convert the first, avoided a sack on the second and threw a 20-yard completion to get the second, then hit a 14-yard throw to convert the third.
Day would prefer to avoid dilemmas of that distance against a Wisconsin defense that ranks No. 1 nationally in virtually every category, but damaged its credibility last week by allowing two touchdowns of 40 yards or more in a shocking 24-23 loss to Illinois.
"I think ideally when we stay on schedule, it’s third-and-manageable," Day said. "That gives us our best chance. We have an opportunity to run or pass, which is always good. When you start to get in third-and-longs, now it’s a little bit more always going to be a pass, they can tee off a little bit."
While Ohio State's Chase Young leads the nation with 9.5 sacks, helping the Buckeyes rank first overall in that category with 29.
Wisconsin has only two fewer sacks, however, and can bring pressure from a variety of angles and stunts with a 3-4 defense that has very active and talented linebackers.
“The O line and I are on the same page," Fields said. "We see defenses well and we see who’s coming and who’s not. As long as me and those guys are on the same page I know who they’re blocking and who I have to account for, we should be good.”
Northwestern, which featured a Top 30 defense at kickoff, sacked Fields only once. That showed marked improvement from his previous three games, in which he took eight sacks, occasionally holding the ball longer than necessary.
About the only category in the league OSU doesn't rank first or second in is quarterback sacks against. The Buckeyes are sixth, having allowed 14 so far.
"Some of it’s protection," Day said. "Some of it also is that Justin tries to create. He works through his reads. Then there’s times where he wants to extend and create. That’s okay, too. It’s not the end of the world."
Day is willing to give Fields such leeway because he knows his quarterback can make something special happen, either with his arm via a talented receiving corp or with his feet off improvisation.
Day also schemes smartly around those talents, like on Fields' 60-yard touchdown pass to Binjamin Victor against Michigan State, which began with Fields running to the edge as if he would keep the football.
"You have to cover from sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone," Leonhard said. "They do a great job stretching the field and they have skill that can run.”
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