Wisconsinby Mike Fiammetta
For Wisconsin to avenge last year's overtime loss to Ohio State, several things must hold true. Perhaps that sounds odd for a team coming off a 41-10 win in the Big Ten opener, but 1. That was over Purdue, and 2. Purdue is certainly not Ohio State.
For a team one refereeing debacle away from a 4-0 start, the Badgers have certifiable weaknesses that widen the spectrum of possible season outcomes from a fourth straight Rose Bowl trip to a three- or four-loss season. The consensus entering this season was that the winner of this game would essentially be assured of a Leaders Division title. That still feels more likely than not, so the stakes are incredibly high for a late-September game.
1. Develop consistency in the passing game: If you ask me, Joel Stave isn't that bad. Yes, he's struggled with his accuracy more than expected through four games. His deep ball, previously his undeniable strength as a passer, hasn't been as sharp. His completion percentage is up to 63.2 percent from last year's 50, though that season was injury-shortened.
Simply put, the Badgers' glaring lack of a receiver not named Jared Abbrederis and one of the weaker pass-blocking Wisconsin offensive lines in recent memory haven't done him any favors. That's why this is about developing consistency throughout that entire aspect of the offense, not just Stave.
Unless something crazy happens -- probably bad for Wisconsin, as most envision this scenario as the nightmarish version where Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes run wild -- this game'll be close, and the Badgers will have to make key plays through the air to win. Whether that's key third-down conversations late in the game or the sort of game-winning or tying drive that keeps Wisconsin's dreams alive, it seems "destined" to come down to the passing game.
2. Get Melvin Gordon in the ball: Yes, Wisconsin fans are not entirely happy with the way Melvin Gordon's been used. Yes, we're talking about that for a player leading the nation with 624 rushing yards and a per-carry average of 11.8.
But with those numbers, you'd be expecting a back like Gordon to be getting more than 13.25 carries per game. This isn't a mini-mite, home-run hitter type of runner we're talking about. If anything, that'd be James White, and he's still getting 15.25 carries per game.
Head coach Gary Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig have said that division of carries isn't likely to change, as the intention is to cater fully to both backs' strengths. That's legitimate, as Gordon, say, excels on sweeps and breaking long runs going to the outside, while White has proven to be a remarkable receiver out of the backfield or even the slot.
We've seen more and more alignments with both on the field at the same time, and I'd expect that to continue to Saturday night. Maybe Gordon gets a few more carries, but as long as he has it in his hands with the briefest sliver of room, he'll break loose. Don't forget, either, that White's more than capable of doing the same as well.
3. Contain the Ohio State quarterback: Wisconsin has a history of being able to do this against both Miller and Terrelle Pryor. That has fans not entirely fearing this year's match-up, as the front seven is the strongest and deepest the Badgers have had in recent memory.
Ohio Stateby Jeanna Thomas
Wisconsin does represent Ohio State's toughest opponent to date, by far, as well as the Buckeyes' first conference game. Saturday will also be the first time this season that the Buckeyes have been, at least on paper, at full strength. Carlos Hyde, projected in preseason to be Ohio State's most effective rusher in 2013, returned to the field last week following a three-week suspension for an off-the-field incident, and quarterback Braxton Miller, an early Heisman favorite, has missed two weeks with a sprained MCL, but is expected to start on Saturday. This will be the first time Hyde and Miller have been on the field together this season.
Braxton Miller has completed 70.8% of his passes in limited action this season, and he has a real opportunity to take advantage of Wisconsin with his improved passing accuracy and ability. Two key defensive backs are injured heading into Saturday's matchup. T.J. Reynard, who plays nickel, does not appear to be healthy enough to play on Saturday, and starting cornerback Peniel Jean is questionable for Saturday as well. That leaves Wisconsin with a young, inexperienced secondary, and receivers Philly Brown and Devin Smith should be able to exploit that.
Defensively, it is key that the Buckeyes limit the run, particularly on first down. Forcing Joel Stave to throw on second- or third-and-long puts Ohio State's secondary in a position to create turnovers. Ohio State's linebackers in particular will need to contain Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement, and work to limit the big play. Stave seems to have the best chemistry with wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, so putting Bradley Roby in coverage against Abbrederis should go a long way toward limiting what the Badgers can accomplish through the air, as well.