It has been quite an interesting journey for the 2014-15 Ohio State Buckeyes. Heading into the season, expectations were high surrounding senior quarterback Braxton Miller, but when Miller reinjured his right throwing shoulder, the season expectations dropped off quite a bit. Enter J.T. Barrett. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, helped lead Ohio State to an 11-1 record, including an upset win over a top 10 Michigan State team and the third consecutive win over arch rival Michigan.
Then, Ohio State lost their second starting quarterback of the year when Barrett injured his ankle during 'The Game', ending his season. Now, the Buckeyes will look to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones. Jones is the new starter and is tasked with beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship for his first ever start, while also doing so impressively as to position themselves for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1) comes into Indianapolis with all the confidence in the world, having won seven straight games and winning the Big Ten West division with wins over Nebraska and Minnesota (and Iowa in between). While the Buckeyes are playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Badgers look to play spoiler with their ferocious rushing attack behind running back and Heisman candidate, Melvin Gordon.
We give you five things to look for tomorrow night in the Big Ten championship:
We came here to play FOOTBALL
Cardale Jones' time has finally come. While he still has to worry about playing school, Jones has his chance to be Ohio State's starting quarterback, with the eyes of the college football landscape all on him. Entering the season as the backup to the backup, Jones has seen himself forced into action by two season-ending injuries to both Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. With his team relying on him to lead the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship win, will Jones come up big in his first start?
The pressure is going to be quite enough, but worrying about Wisconsin's stout defense (ranked fourth in the country in total points allowed) is going to make his job that much tougher. The coaching staff will have to find ways to get Jones comfortable early running the offense, so expect to see plenty of screens and short passes to build his confidence. From there, it's up to Jones to handle the duties of a quarterback.
Melvin Gordon is as scary as you'd imagine
Let's not kid ourselves. No matter how well Ohio State's defense prepares, Melvin Gordon is going to get his. The Heisman candidate has rushed 2,260 yards and an astounding 26 touchdowns on 283 carries. That averages out to exactly eight yards per carry. Eight. To put that in perspective, let's remember Carlos Hyde from last season, who dominated the Big Ten. Hyde had 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 carries, averaging 7.3 yards every time he touched the ball, which is pretty impressive, considering his missed several games at the beginning of the year due to suspension.
That being said, Gordon's numbers are more than impressive. There's a reason he has a good chance at being invited to New York for the Heisman ceremony, and a big win over Ohio State could propel his chances. The Buckeyes rushing defense has left something to be desired, but is still solid overall. They'll face their toughest task on Saturday night, and look for Ohio State to try and contain Gordon as much as possible.
Up to Ezekiel?
With J.T. Barrett out of the picture, Ohio State has to try and stay balanced on offense, despite having a first-time starter at quarterback in Cardale Jones. Despite that, running back Ezekiel Elliott might be leaned on heavily come Saturday night. The sophomore running back has been clutch so far this season, rushing for 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns on 197 carries.
Elliott won't have to do it alone, as Curtis Samuel provides a nice change of pace to Ohio State's offense, but the majority of the snaps will stay with Elliott. Expect the Buckeyes to use Elliott a lot more than usual in this game, despite Wisconsin owning the eighth-best run defense in the country as they've allowed just over 100 yards rushing each game at 103.75.
Wary of Stave and McEvoy
The quarterback situation at Wisconsin is an interesting one (and one that might be useful to watch for next season with Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett looking to see the field). Joel Stave is the Badgers starting quarterback, but for much of the season has been used as a game manager more than anything else. He doesn't 'wow' you with big plays, but can get the job done when handing it off or throwing for first downs. Stave also did not play in the first four games of the season, so his stats are a tad misleading.
Tanner McEvoy brings on the wild card aspect of Wisconsin's offense. When McEvoy is in the game, expect the Badgers to run the ball with him or run some sort of option with Melvin Gordon. McEvoy is a dangerous runner in the open field and the Buckeyes will have to be on their toes when he's in the game. Expect the Badgers to try some trickery with McEvoy throwing some on Saturday night as well.
Every Ohio State fan is well aware of what happened last year at this time. The Buckeyes being knocked out of the national championship game, riding a 24-game win streak, by losing in the Big Ten championship to Michigan State was one of the worst feelings to have after such a great season (not to mention one of the most exciting duos in college football with the tag team of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde). This season was expected to be another shot at the Big Ten championship.
While the Buckeyes did in fact make it here, they did so while also losing their two starting quarterbacks. Despite that, there's still plenty of optimism around Columbus, and the coaching staff has their team ready to play for the Big Ten title. Win impressively, and the Buckeyes might find themselves with a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. What a scenario that would be. Go Bucks.