The entirety of the build up to Ohio State and Wisconsin has seemed to circle around one thing and one thing alone: how much these two teams hate each other. From both head coaches acknowledging the rivalry its become, to the two fan bases sparring over whether or not Ohio State cares more about Wisconsin than Wisconsin doesn't care about Ohio State, when kickoff just after 3:30 PM EST finally rolls around, it's either going to be a bit of a relief, or it's going to be the beginning of an all out brawl between the two sides.
What is there to say that hasn't already been rehashed about the past two seasons? The Ohio State Buckeyes added insult to insult a week after Wisconsin lost one of the most exciting, hard fought games of the college football season last year by upsetting the highly favored Wisconsin Badgers in Columbus (helped of course in no part by an emphatic Braxton Miller to Devin Smith touchdown heave and catch you won't soon forget). The year prior, Wisconsin broke the hinges of the door with a game opening kick returning for a touchdown and followed that up with an ensuing power run/defensive clinic which ruined Ohio State's perfect season. So what will the rubber match have in store?
Well for one, it will have two coaches that in spite of whatever they've said to the media for the better part of the last week, genuinely don't like each other. Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema not so subtly accused Urban Meyer of playing dirty pool just two weeks into Meyer's tenure as Ohio State head coach. Purportedly the Badgers head man took exception to dignitaries like Eddie George putting in good words on behalf of Ohio State to recruits, but neither he nor Meyer ever addressed the specifics. While both have publicly said all the right things for the last week, don't think Meyer has forgotten. If Ohio State gets the opportunity to put the pedal down, you have to think they will. Whether or not that's feasible could depend on the Wisconsin offense.
Wisconsin has struggled on offense at times this year, but if last week's performance is any indication, they are hitting their stride at the right time. The Badgers have been plagued by injuries and inconsistencies at the QB position, as Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien never lived up to expectations, and backup turned starter Joel Stave was average at best, and now out for the year with a broken collarbone. Senior Curt Phillips will get his second career start on Saturday, after going 4/7 for 41 yards and a TD against Indiana. Pedestrian numbers, sure, but when you're rushing for approximately 12 miles of offense, why bother passing? I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that Phillips will need to throw the ball more than 7 times to beat Ohio State.
Who will be catching those passes shouldn't be too much of a surprise, as it's probably going to be Jared Abbrederis. He's been far and away Wisconsin's biggest (and only really) playmaker at wideout, with 38 catches for 689 yards and 5 TDs. That's 26 more catches than the next wideout, freshman Jordan Fredrick. The Badgers do have a very capable receiving target at tight end with junior Jacob Pederson (18 catches 264 yards 3 TDs), who could prove a matchup problem for Ohio State's linebackers. The pass catching options get a little slim after that, as no other wideout has even 100 yards on the season to their name.
When you have a rushing attack like the Badgers though, who needs to pass? The name you're all familiar with is preseason Heisman candidate and name changing extraordinaire, Montee/Montay/Montee Hall? Ball. Montee hasn't put up quite the same eye popping numbers as last season, due to various injuries and the lack of a dynamic passing attack to open lanes for him, but 1226 yards and 16 TDs is still pretty damn good. Ball is a hard runner who can break tackles and is capable of wrecking serious havoc once he gets the second level of the defense, and will be the toughest back OSU has faced this season this side of Le'Veon Bell. Ball is spelled by one of the best backup running backs you haven't heard of, junior James White, who can claim 647 yards and 8 TDs. White has gone over 100 yards in 3 of his last 4 games, including 161 against Indiana and 175 against Minnesota. Wisconsin doesn't have the mobile QB threat that Ohio State and Nebraska can bring to the table, but it's hard to find a better 1-2 punch at running back in the B1G, or even major college football.
The Badgers offensive line isn't quite as vaunted as in past years. With Paul Chryst on to greener, well certainly at least fiscally, pastures, the o-line is under the guise of former graduate student Bart Miller. Interestingly enough, Miller is Wisconsin's second offensive line coach of the season. Mark Markuson, a long-time SEC OL mentor, came over from Ole Miss in the offseason to replace Chryst. He wouldn't last more than two games following being dismissed just after the Oregon State loss. The linemen that comprise this corp are two capable tackles in senior Rick Wagner and sophomore Rob Havenstein. The guards are less up to Wisconsin's recent historical high standards with junior Ryan Groy and Kyle Costigan playing on the left and right respectively. Finally, they're anchored in the middle by probably their best lineman, junior Travis Frederick. Frederick was second team all Big Ten a year ago.
The unquestionable strength of this 2012 Badgers group comes in the form of their top 15 ranked nationally defense. Co-coordinators Chris Ash (a former coworker of Ohio State OC Tom Herman at Iowa State) and Charles Partridge's group consists of entirely upper classmen starters. It begins on the defensive line with juniors David Gilbert and Pat Muldoon. Gilbert is second on the team with four sacks and also has seven tackles for a loss on the year. The interior is anchored by two additional third year eligibility wise players, Beau Allen and Ethan Hemer. Allen's been the more disruptive force of the two with 5.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks to his name.
Where things get positively downright scary for Wisconsin is with one of the best linebacking groups out there. Wisconsin middle line backer Chris Borland drew high praise from Urban Meyer during Meyer's Monday press conference. He deservedly finds himself on just about every post season watch list he could possibly be eligible for. Weak side linebacker Mike Taylor, a senior, is a force in and of himself. Taylor leads the team with 95 tackles, 50 of them solo. He has also has 12 tackles for a loss. Ethan Armstrong rounds out the group and may or may not be the evil doctor that stole Claire's baby.
The Wisconsin secondary is comprised of three seniors and a junior. The lone junior, free safety, Dezmen Southward, has managed an impressive five tackles for a loss and added a forced fumble and interception to that 2012 resume. Shelton Johnson is the Badgers' other safety operating out of the strong position. Marcus Cromartie, cousin of the extremely fertile New York Jets corner, starts at one corner while Devin Smith rounds out the Badgers secondary. This ensures at some point during the afternoon/evening, it's possible there will be a Devin Smith on Devin Smith situation. The Devin Smith singularity is imminent. This is not a drill.
As has become customary, we can't not mention the team's specialists. Sophomore kicker Kyle French is fourth in the Big Ten in field goal percentage, having converted 10 of his 13 attempts. Fellow sophomore Drew Meyer is roughly akin, placing fifth in the conference averaging 41.41 yards per punt (just behind the Buckeyes' Ben Buchanan). Freshman tailback Melvin Gordon is the lead kick returner with Kenzel Doe and Abbrederis splitting the punt return duties.
For all both fan bases are likely to tell you, this is a contest that could go in either team's favor. The best thing Ohio State has going for it is that this Wisconsin team isn't quite to the level of the past two Rose Bowl runner up squads. While this Buckeye team is considerably better than its predecessor, it too probably isn't up to the level of the 2010 team that was upset in Madison. Given that this contest isn't a night game, that might be the most reassuring thing we can say about a contest that's deservedly a coin toss odds wise.
Holy War. Ohio State 28 - Wisconsin 24
Matt Brown contributed to this report.