For the second straight year, Ohio State has earned a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game, but this year has a very different feel from last year's trip. After losing to Michigan State last year to hand Urban Meyer his first loss as Ohio State's coach, the Buckeyes face a different type of adversity this year. After starting the season having to deal with the loss of Braxton Miller to a second shoulder surgery, last week, the Buckeyes lost J.T. Barrett for the rest of the season due to an ankle injury he suffered in the second half against Michigan. Now Meyer and the Buckeyes will hope Cardale Jones can replicate some of the success that Barrett enjoyed as Ohio State tries to knock off Wisconsin and stay in the thick of the College Football Playoff race.
Coming into this weekend's action, Ohio State sits fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings, and while they look to need some help with a loss or two from one of the four teams above them, the main thing they have to do on Saturday night is find a way to overcome the adversity they have faced lately both on and off the football field. There haven't been very many instances during Meyer's three-year tenure in Columbus that the Buckeyes have found themselves as an underdog heading into a game, but when they haven't had the role of favorite, Meyer has had his team ready to go. Meyer will have to have his team ready to relish the underdog role again on Saturday night in what looks to be his toughest game to date as head coach of the Buckeyes.
Not only will the Buckeyes have to get Jones acclimated to the quarterback position in just a week's time, but they also have the task of trying to slow down Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, which very few teams have been able to do during Gordon's time in Madison. The Badgers are looking to win their third Big Ten Championship Game in the last four years, with last season being the only season they missed playing in the title game. Overall, Wisconsin is seeking to win their fourth overall Big Ten championship in the past five years. To do so, the Badgers will have to exercise some of the recent demons the Buckeyes have provided, with Ohio State winning the last three meetings between the two schools.
As if those storylines for Saturday night's game weren't enough, fans will also be treated to Urban Meyer going up against one of his former assistant coaches. Gary Andersen was an assistant under Meyer before taking the Utah State head coaching position, and after that moving on to Madison to take over for the departed Bret Bielema. Last year Andersen and Meyer met when the Badgers came to Columbus, with Meyer's squad earning the 31-24 victory. Andersen will be hoping to do something only one other former Meyer assistant has been able to do: earn a victory over the teacher. This will be the seventh time Meyer has gone up against a former assistant, with the only loss happening in 2010 when Dan Mullen and Mississippi State took down the Gators.
|Team||Record||CFP||F/+ Rk||Line||Off F/+ Rk||Def F/+ Rk||ST F/+ Rk|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Defense||25||40||56||11||12||27||17|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Offense||1||1||1||2||7||10||107|
Wisconsin's biggest advantages
Strength against weakness. It is no secret that lately Ohio State's defense has been having their issues, and those problems could be magnified even more when they have to try and slow down the nation's leading rusher. Melvin Gordon has rushed for 2,260 yards this season, which is already fourth-best in NCAA history. Add to that the 29 touchdowns he has scored so far this season, and the eight-yards per carry that he is averaging, and Ohio State has their work cut out for them on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Ohio State-Wisconsin Advanced Stats Preview
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.
After allowing 145 yards to Minnesota's David Cobb and 228 yards to Indiana's Tevin Coleman, the Buckeyes have to shore up their rushing defense if they have any hopes of winning. Gordon is a more complete running back than those two rushers, and if the Buckeyes have a lapse on defense for even just a second Gordon will make them play for it. While Gordon is averaging 188 yards per game rushing, he actually averages more against Power 5 teams, with a 198.7 yard average, so he does his best work when the pressure is on. In November, when most running backs are slowing down due to the punishment they've take most of the year, Gordon did his best work rushing for 1,092 yards, which was more than all but 17 of the 124 FBS teams.
If the Buckeyes are able to slow down Gordon, they'll have another running back they have to worry about in Corey Clement. So far this season Clement has rushed for 830 yards and nine touchdowns this season. The 3,090 yards Gordon and Clement have rushed for this season broke the record for a running back duo that Gordon and James White set last year. The Badgers might not be shy about what they want to do on offense, but for opponents knowing what Wisconsin will do and actually stopping it are two different things.
Defense wins championships. Melvin Gordon might get most of the attention for the Badgers, but one of the most unheralded units in the country just might be Wisconsin's defense. The Badgers are only allowing opposing offenses to 260 yards per game, which ranks second in the country, and 16.8 points per game, which ranks fourth in the nation. Not only do the Badgers stop the run well, allowing opponents to just 103 yards per game on the ground, but they are even better against the pass, sitting second in the country by only allowing 156.6 yards per game through the air.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranada has his crew playing at a very high level, but now they'll have to be at the top of their game when they take on a Ohio State offense that is averaging 44 points per game. The Badgers might not have played anybody quite with the offensive potential as the Buckeyes so far this season, but they have taken care of those offenses they've had to face, not allowing any opponent to score more than 28 points through 12 games so far this season.
The work Wisconsin does on the defensive side of the ball isn't flashy but it gets the job done. The Badgers only have six interceptions on the season, so they don't have the opportunistic defense that the Buckeyes have, but they do play sound defense and don't let the opposition beat them. Senior linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter will look to provide the leadership the Badgers need to slow down what Cardale Jones and the rest of the Ohio State offense will offer up.
Chip on the shoulder. Wisconsin might have been installed as the favorites when it comes to the point spread in this line, but they might be feeling like the underdogs in this matchup. With the success Ohio State has had against Wisconsin the last few years, the Badgers will be looking to topple the premier team in the Big Ten and install themselves as one of the best teams in the country. The overall series against Ohio State has been rather lopsided, with the Buckeyes holding a 58-18-5 edge. What better way to earn some respect from your foe than by taking them out with so much on the line?
The Badgers have the experience and the routine of going to Indianapolis and earning the win on their side, having won two of the first three Big Ten title games. In the state of Indiana, the Badgers have quite a streak going, having won 11 straight games in the Hoosier State, and not having lost there since 2004. Meanwhile, Ohio State lost in their only trip to Lucas Oil Field, and could be pressing even harder for a win this year after coming up short to Michigan State last year.
All the pressure is on the Buckeyes in this one, which could allow the Badgers to play loose, much like Michigan State did last season. With many thinking Ohio State can just plug in Cardale Jones with just a week to prepare and still earn the victory, this Badger team could be feeling disrespected. Wisconsin wants to show that they are every bit as good as the Buckeyes, if not better, and if the Buckeyes aren't completely focused in this one, it could make for a long night, much like in last December's championship game.
Ohio State's biggest advantages
Known unknown. While Ohio State's second injury in just under four months to a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback is devastating, it could actually work in their favor on Saturday night. Cardale Jones has seen some late game mop-up duty in a few of Ohio State's blowouts this year, but there isn't a lot of tape out there on the quarterback. Wisconsin won't exactly know what to expect from Jones and the rest of the Buckeye offense when they take the field in Indianapolis on Saturday night.
Jones isn't exactly unfamiliar with working with the first-team offense of the Buckeyes, as he took a lot of reps during offseason workouts with the starters while Braxton Miller was recovering from his first shoulder surgery. The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in the abilities of Jones, and had him rated only slightly lower than Barrett when it came time to name a replacement for Miller when he learned he needed a second shoulder surgery in August. Jones has great size at 6'5 and 250 pounds, which will help the Buckeyes when they choose to run the football with Jones.
The size and athleticism that Jones possesses might have him labeled as more of a running quarterback, but he can also throw the football when needed, so Wisconsin can't load up against Ohio State running against the football. With his size, Jones has a very strong arm, which Ohio State could use to their advantage if they get some favorable matchups with deep threat wide receiver Devin Smith. Many may be worried about how long the transition period for Jones to get comfortable as the starter will be, but coaches and teammates sound confident that Jones can do all the things Barrett was able to do, and contribute immediately.
Digging deep. It isn't hard to get up for a football game, especially when you are playing for a conference championship, but the Buckeyes will have more motivation than most with what has happened the past few weeks around the football team. First off, there was the injury to J.T. Barrett that happened last week. The Buckeyes have heard of a lot of people writing them off the rest of the season because they'll be missing their field general who has led them to a 11-1 record coming into Saturday's game. But the Buckeyes have already had to deal with a similar situation, and while Barrett had a little more time to get ready and comfortable with the offense, if any team is built to deal with the adversity, it is the Buckeyes.
Next came the news of the death of walk-on lineman Kosta Karageorge on Sunday. Buckeye players and coaches attended Karageorge's funeral on Wednesday. Ohio State will be wearing a decal on their helmets on Saturday night honoring Karageorge, and a moment of silence will be held at Lucas Oil Stadium prior to the game. While this was Karageorge's first season as part of the football team, he was greatly respected by his teammates for his hard work in practice. This will only provide some added motivation for the Buckeyes, who will want to take down the Badgers for their teammate and friend.
Finally there is the matter of the desperate desire of the senior class to earn a Big Ten championship. Those who have spent four years in scarlet and gray have been through a lot during their time in Columbus; from the end of the Jim Tressel era, to the struggles in the year with Luke Fickell as head coach, and the bowl ban in the first year with Urban Meyer was head coach. Last year, the Buckeyes were close to not only earning a Big Ten title, but also securing a spot in the BCS Championship Game, but the loss to Michigan State took all that away. With the Buckeyes on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff, they know a win is a must if they have any hope in being included in the first edition of the playoff. If Ohio State can channel all of that extra motivation, even the high-powered Wisconsin rushing attack might not be enough to topple the Buckeyes.
Make them one dimensional. If Ohio State is able to solve the puzzle that is the Wisconsin defense early and build an early lead, it will help to take the Badgers out of their comfort zone. Where Wisconsin gets into trouble on offense is when they are forced to pass the football. Last year Jared Abbrederis has a career game against the Buckeyes in Columbus, but he exhausted his eligibility and Wisconsin is still struggling to find someone as reliable as him in the passing game. The leading receiver for Wisconsin is sophomore Alex Erickson, who has hauled in 44 passes for 651 yards, and three touchdowns.
Not only have the Badgers had some issues finding reliable targets to catch the football, but they haven't exactly had the most stability at quarterback this season. Tanner McEvoy started the season, but eventually Joel Stave took bad the job that he held last year. Together the two have combined for 13 touchdown passes and 1,749 through the air. Stave has played better as of late, but with the ability the Buckeyes have to cause turnovers, putting the ball in his hands and needing to have him make plays isn't something that Wisconsin has to feel all that comfortable with.
Wisconsin hasn't been in very many positions this year where they have had to play from behind. The Badgers got down early to Nebraska a few weeks ago, but that was early enough in the game where Wisconsin had time for Gordon to help erase the deficit on the way to the dominating win. If the Buckeyes can put the pressure on Wisconsin and, unlike Nebraska, are able to sustain it, the Badgers could get into panic mode which would play right into Ohio State's hands.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 35, Wisconsin 25
Win Probability: Ohio State 69%
The point spread may disagree, but the F/+ projection has Ohio State as a double-digit favorite in the Big Ten Championship Game. With the amount of questions Ohio State is facing at the quarterback position coming in, this projection is a little bit of a surprise.
The Buckeyes have the best offense Wisconsin has faced so far this season, but on the other hand Wisconsin has the most sound defense Ohio State has faced. The biggest question, which the F/+ rankings don't account for is how will Ohio State channel the tremendous amount of emotion they'll have coming into the game after week with so many distractions.
If Ohio State is able to quickly transition Cardale Jones into the quarterback position, as well as create a gameplan that magnifies the impact of former high school quarterback Jalin Marshall, it'll be tough for Wisconsin to knock off the Buckeyes. If Wisconsin is able to get another huge performance from Melvin Gordon and keep the Ohio State offense of the field and not allow Jones to get into a rhythm, this is anybody's ball game. Either way it is shaping up to be a tremendous matchup for college football fans to take in.