Ohio State will get one of its stiffest tests of the season’s first half when the Buckeyes travel to Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium to take on the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers, owners of a 4-1 record, are coming off of a bye week after dismantling Michigan State in early October.
Give Wisconsin credit: it’s not their fault that Sparty and LSU have been exposed as paper tigers. What would have counted as two quality wins in most other years feels like so much smoke in this one. Either way, the Badgers went into both contests and did what they had to do, and while they looked wholly unimpressive against lowly Georgia State, their performance the rest of the season has made them look like contenders for a berth in the Big Ten championship game.
There’s only one problem. Wisconsin’s defense has been outrageously good this season—like Ohio State, they’ve got a little brother with a famous last name taking care of business—but that defensive stinginess has covered up for an offense that’s one of the least explosive and least efficient in the FBS. That’s bad news for the Badgers, who will be up against a Buckeye unit that has yet to allow a rushing touchdown and has smothered the life out of five straight opponents.
A player with the skill set to make sure the same happens this Saturday? Linebacker Jerome Baker.
Name: Jerome Baker
Line: 20.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD
Baker, who plays outside linebacker, wasn’t supposed to be a starter on this year’s team. But after a knee injury to Dante Booker, who has now missed four straight games, it’s been Baker stepping up and shutting down opposing offenses next to Raekwon McMillan and Chris Worley.
Baker’s lateral speed and tackling ability are part of the reason why the Buckeyes still haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown in 2016, the only team in the FBS who can say so. There’s a decent chance they keep that streak alive this Saturday, given what Wisconsin has done—or hasn’t done—on offense this year.
Wisconsin ranks just 100th nationally in offensive S&P+. The Badgers have consistently failed to create explosive plays, aren’t efficient with the football, and struggle to finish drives once they get inside the opponent’s 40 yard-line.
They’re a little bit stronger on the ground than they are through the air. Looking at just rushing S&P+, the Badgers rank 43rd nationally; this is true despite coming in 106th in rushing success rate, the measure of how many runs go for five or more yards.
The Badgers just don’t have the kind of weapons that they’ve had in the past few seasons. There’s no Jared Abbrederis to get behind the secondary, no Russell Wilson to extend plays with his legs, no Melvin Gordon to run all over everything. Senior running back Corey Clement is averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry—less than half of what Curtis Samuel’s doing. Senior Robert Wheelwright is a talented receiver, but he’s been held without a touchdown grab this season playing in an offense that’s found passing TDs tough to come by. There aren’t an awful lot of options for this Badgers offense, even if it has looked a little more lifelike in Alex Hornibrook’s short tenure under center.
What to watch for
This game is going to be a defensive slugfest under the lights in Madison. Ohio State’s scoring offense will certainly be tempered, but Wisconsin’s offense might barely score at all.
Jerome Baker is going to have his opportunities to make a mark on this contest. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in havoc rate, the measure of how many plays go for a loss, forced fumble, interception, or pass breakup; Baker’s made no small contribution to those numbers in 2016. Watch how his lateral speed gets him past the lineman and into the backfield for a TFL on this run against Indiana:
It’s comical just how much quicker he is than the man tasked with getting out to block him. Baker’s fast laterally and downhill, and his instincts are good. You may recall that he also took an interception 68 yards back to the house against Oklahoma, putting his speed and vision on display:
In other words: Baker has the potential to be a world-wrecker. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded by other current and rising stars on the Buckeye defense, nor does it hurt that he’ll be lining up across from a redshirt freshman quarterback who’s thrown more picks than touchdowns so far this season.
The last time Ohio State played under the lights in Camp Randall with the College Gameday crew in town, the Badgers spoiled the season for the Buckeyes and knocked them from atop the rankings after just one week. That shouldn’t happen this time around. There is too much quality on the Ohio State defense, and too many question marks on the Wisconsin offense, to think that this one might get away from the Scarlet and Gray. Look for Jerome Baker to be a big reason why the Buckeyes walk away with a W on Saturday night.