This offseason, who would have thought that tomorrow’s game between Ohio State and Wisconsin would be one in which both were ranked in the top ten?
Sure, it makes sense that the Buckeyes are ranked 2nd nationally, even despite losing so much talent from last season. With the way they’ve recruited and developed, Ohio State seems to be a lock to be at the forefront of college football until Urban Meyer decides he wants to wash windows every weekend. But Wisconsin? That’s another story.
Coming into the season, the Badgers not only had to find a new quarterback, but also replace their star defensive coordinator, and navigate through a brutal schedule. It wasn’t inconceivable to picture Wisconsin 2-4, heading into Iowa City next week, fighting for the chance to just make a bowl. But, as things would have it, the Badgers are 4-1, with wins over LSU and Michigan State, and a 14-7 loss on the road at Michigan. So, are they primed for a big time upset this week, with College Gameday on hand?
They’re going to have to score more than 10 points, so probably not, but this should still be an excellent test for an Ohio State team that has looked great through five games, but also showed some real flaws for the first time last week against Indiana.
With that in mind, here are five things you should watch for in tomorrow night’s game:
Early and often
A major point of contention this week —including on our podcast— was Curtis Samuel’s lack of involvement against Indiana, especially early in the game. Samuel didn’t touch the ball until the 14:20 mark of the second quarter —Ohio State’s fourth possession— and for the first time all season, was held catchless.
While he did finish the day with 82 yards rushing, his nine touches were far under the 15-per game mark Meyer has mentioned all season. Against an even better defense this week, Ohio State would be wise to trust its best playmaker to open up the offense.
There’s a lot of blame to go around in regards to the Buckeye passing game last week, but one of the more baffling decisions was not making Samuel a focal point. Weather may be an issue again on Saturday, and finding creative ways to get Samuel the ball on short passes seems like a much more viable strategy then trying to launch downfield all day (again).
He’s is going to get his fair share of carries, but getting him easy touches in the pass game not only lets him do what he’s best at — I.E. DUSTING FOOLS — but could also be a nice way to get J.T. Barrett in rhythm.
Keep an eye on Samuel’s usage —especially early— and if he’s getting a chance to make plays in the open field via the short passes. If he is, it should open things up nicely for the Buckeye ground attack.
Also lost amid all the talk surrounding the passing game last week was the almost non-existent wide receiver play. Of J.T. Barrett’s 21 passes, only five were to true wide receivers, with those passes amounting to a pedestrian two catches for 16 yards. Needless to say, that probably won’t cut it against Wisconsin.
While the new receiving corps has had their moments this season, they’ve also been extremely inconsistent. After Noah Brown’s four touchdown day at Oklahoma, the redshirt sophomore has only two catches since. The story has been mostly the same for Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, and Johnnie Dixon. Each has flashed at times, but this game would be a good time to start turning their (very high) potential into production.
While it’s great that Dontre Wilson is healthy and a productive piece to the offense this season, color me skeptical that a successful passing offense includes him leading the non-Curtis Samuel division of Ohio State pass catchers in targets.
Wisconsin’s defense isn’t going to make it easy for them, (15th in Defensive Passing S&P+, 9th in Defensive back Havoc Rate) but with a crowded line of scrimmage once again likely, it’ll be up the the wideouts to make plays downfield. If they even make just a few, the offense will look less like the one dimensional version we saw against Indiana, and more like the complete version against Oklahoma.
Making noise up front
The good news is that if Ohio State’s offense struggles again, the defense should be more than capable of picking up the slack. That starts with the defensive line.
While the pass rush continues to be worrisome (101st in Adj. sack rate) the Buckeyes’ defensive line has been stellar against the run (4th in Adj. line yards) and have made a ton of plays at, or behind, the line scrimmage (4th in stuff rate, 13th in defensive line havoc rate). Doing so again on Saturday could lead to big things for the seven players behind them.
Leveraging Wisconsin into passing downs situations makes it unlikely that redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have much success against this secondary. Hornibrook was forced into these situations against Michigan, and was a dismal 9 of 25, with three interceptions. If the Buckeyes control the line on first and second downs similarly, there may be a whole lot of this:
After mostly up-and-down play through Meyer’s first four seasons, Ohio State’s special teams unit seems to have finally found their groove. The Buckeyes rank third in Special Teams S&P+, with punter Cameron Johnston being the obvious star (2nd in punt success rate). Against an equally strong Wisconsin group (6th in Special teams S&P+) hidden yards may be one of the biggest factors in the outcome of the game.
Ohio State’s special teams dominance has led to a huge field position advantage for both the offense (6th in average field position) and defense (5th). The Buckeyes have been the best in the country at finishing drives offensively, and another strong day from the return group — looking at you, Parris Campbell — will ease the tough task of scoring on the stout Badgers defense.
Wisconsin’s offense probably won’t score much anyway, but if they’re consistently put at a disadvantage by either Johnston’s punts, or strong kick coverage, it’s hard to see them moving the ball for long stretches. The Badgers aren’t explosive enough to make up for the lost yards in special teams, and dinking and dunking down the field isn’t a wise strategy against this defense.
If Ohio State is once again able to win the special teams battle, it will save the offense the trouble of having to drive the length of the field for points, and keep Wisconsin’s offense in their own end for much of the game.
Top ten matchup. College Gameday on hand. Night game on the road.
You already know whose music that is: