Justin Fields hurried away from one pass rusher, then avoided another defender who lunged for his feet before rifling a pass toward the sideline.

It was late in the first quarter of Ohio State's victory at Northwestern last week when Fields escaped the pressure to find receiver K.J. Hill.

The completion on third-and-15 went for 20 yards.

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Much of the third-ranked Buckeyes’ offensive success this season is rooted in their performance in high-leverage situations, particularly on third down. Through the first eight weeks, they lead the Football Bowl Subdivision in third-down conversions at 56.1 percent. Only eight teams in the FBS are above 50 percent.

There are several reasons, as outlined by coach Ryan Day on Tuesday.

But foremost, they have faced manageable situations on third down.

When Ohio State converted a season-high 76.9 percent of its third downs at Nebraska last month, it faced an average distance of 6.1 yards.

In a win over Cincinnati in the second game of the season, the Buckeyes converted 63.6 percent of their third downs, the second-best performance in seven games. The average distance was 5.7 yards.

In other games, they had more yards to go.

“That gives us our best chance,” Day said. “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.”

And those third-and-long situations invite blitzes from the defense.

“They can tee off,” Day said.

In Saturday’s matchup with No. 13 Wisconsin, the Buckeyes should face some challenges from the Badgers defense, which has given up the fewest third-down conversions in the nation at 16.1 percent.

Day credited the Badgers' success to their pass rush. Wisconsin’s 27 sacks rank eighth in the nation.

“When they get in there, they get a shot on you,” Day said. “They don't miss.”

The Buckeyes retain one X-factor. That’s Fields.

On third downs, Fields can extend plays, buying additional time in the pocket before making a throw or scrambling to pick up yards.

“Justin has done a good job of creating,” Day said.

With Fields behind center, the offense under Day has fared better on third downs. Ohio State's conversion rate was 46.6 percent in 2018 and 46.5 percent in 2017.

 

Browning mending

Linebacker Baron Browning missed the Northwestern game due to an injury, Day confirmed Tuesday.

Day did not provide details about the injury or a timeline for his return, but said Browning was making progress this week in preparation for Wisconsin.

“He's working through it,” Day said. “He looks good so far.”

Browning has been a standout on the defense.

He ranks fifth on the team in tackles with 23, fourth in tackles for loss with five and third in sacks with 2.5 while largely splitting time with Tuf Borland at middle linebacker.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman