It's hard to believe that the Buckeyes haven't been Big Ten Champions since 2009. But now that we're in year three of Urban's tenure, the Buckeyes are just a few days away from their second shot at the title in as many years. The only problem is that now Ohio State is down two Heisman-contending quarterbacks and will have to rely on largely-untested redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones to lead them against Wisconsin and whatever future game(s) the Buckeyes have afterwards.
The Wisconsin Badgers are also a very, very good football team. They managed to avoid playing Michigan State, which would have been revealing, but they only have two losses: one to LSU in the season opener, and a surprise loss to Northwestern in week five. Since then, they've beaten up on every team they've faced, including a 59-24 demolition of the Cornhuskers.
|Field Position Advantage||3||75|
Ohio State on offense
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Adj. Line Yards||1||33|
|Adj. Sack Rate||79||4|
It's hard to know what to do with the Buckeyes' offensive statistics. While we haven't seen Cardale Jones throw the ball that often, we know he has a strong arm, maybe has some accuracy issues, doesn't go through his reads like Barrett did, and loves to tuck and run. Unless Herman cooks up a radically different approach this week with lots of Jalin Marshall subbing in, expect what you normally see from the Ohio State offense, just simplified for Cardale Jones' skillset: screens, play action passes to Devin Smith and Michael Thomas in single coverage, misdirection and maybe fewer quarterback read runs. His simple job will be just to get the ball into the hands of his talented playmakers without needing to win the game himself.
There aren't too many red flags for the Buckeye offense as long as Cardale can distribute the ball effectively -- and most importantly, turnover-free. However, the biggest weakness is in Adjusted Sack Rate, suggesting that the fourth-ranked Badgers defensive line might be able to pressure Jones into making mistakes, or just taking off before progressing through his reads.
Assuming that Jones can distribute the ball adequately -- something like 55% completion rate, ~7.2 yards per attempt, and no interceptions -- then the statistics favor the Buckeyes' ground game, which has advantages in both rushing efficiency and in the offensive line's Adjusted Line Yards. However, expect the Badgers defense to come out with heavy blitzes on passing downs and to load the box on standard downs to try and force Cardale Jones to win the game. The offensive line's ability to protect against that onslaught -- and Cardale's resulting decision making -- will decide the outcome here.
Ohio State on defense
|When Wisconsin has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Adj. Line Yards||67||16|
|Adj. Sack Rate||12||31|
Even with J.T. out of the game, maybe the biggest concern will be slowing Melvin Gordon and the Badgers rushing game. The crazy thing about the Badgers offense is that they are ninth in rushing efficiency and also ninth in explosive plays -- usually run-heavy offenses tend towards higher success rates and efficiency than explosiveness. It's also a testament to Melvin Gordon that the offense ranks higher in rushing S&P+ than in Adjusted Line Yards, meaning that (to the point statistics can capture this) Melvin Gordon is responsible for relatively more of the offense's rushing success. Those are the two keys for the Buckeyes: contain Gordon's explosiveness, and beat the offensive line.
Unfortunately those are also the weakest areas for this Buckeye defense. As I said last week, the defense -- and especially the pass defense, now ranked eleventh in the country -- is markedly improved with Chris Ash, but rushing defense looks just about the same statistically as it did last season. The defense allows explosive plays -- 34th in IsoPPP and 61st in stopping opponent runs of 10+ yards -- and the defensive line gets beaten up front. This will absolutely have to change for the Buckeyes to have any shot keeping up with the Badgers.
But then again, while LSU has a typically scary defense (14th in defensive rushing efficiency, 7th in success rate and 18th in creating negative plays), Northwestern -- Wisconsin's other loss -- doesn't have all that great of a defense. They are 39th in defensive rushing efficiency, but 62nd in preventing explosive plays and 40th in Adjusted Line Yards. In fact, Melvin Gordon ran for 259 yards on 9.6 yards per carry (a 63% success rate) in the game. Northwestern won because Gordon didn't score on all of his explosive runs and then the Wildcats had a +4 turnover margin (with three interceptions out of Joel Stave). The Buckeyes will likely need a similar defensive effort. The defense's big weakness is in the front seven's rush defense -- and it's too much to expect them to flip that season trend in one week -- so the Buckeyes have to be aggressive whenever Joel Stave does pass the ball.