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Wisconsin is a bad matchup for Ohio State

The Badgers have the best defense in the country, and their offense can attack similarly to Iowa and Michigan

Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

At the beginning of the season, the Badgers topped the list of teams with the best odds to make the playoff, using the S&P+ projections. That projection is looking pretty solid now, as Wisconsin was able to breeze through their light schedule — which included just two games against teams ranked in the S&P+ top-40 (FAU and Michigan).

Besides the game against Michigan, the Big Ten Championship is their only truly difficult game of the season. So strength of schedule questions are legit.

But don’t let their light schedule distract you from the fact that the Badgers are still one of the best teams in the country and that they’re also a poor matchup for Ohio State — on both sides of the ball.

Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Statistic Ohio State Wisconsin
Statistic Ohio State Wisconsin
S&P+ 1 3
Returning offensive production 50th (68%) 58th (66%)
Returning defensive production 92nd (57%) 56th (68%)
Blue chip ratio 74% 7%
247 Team Talent Composite 2nd (avg. 91.13) 37th (84.63)
Offensive Plays > 20 Yards 10th (77) 58th (56)
Defensive Plays > 20 Yards 43rd (49) 2nd (32)
Turnover margin/game 48th (.25) 57th (.17)
Kickoff success rate 105th (62.4%) 8th (92.1%)
Kickoff return success rate 55th (46.4%) 88th (40%)

Wisconsin ranks third overall in the S&P+, and they’ve been dominant in almost every game they’ve played — including eight games with an 88% or better S&P+ performance. That’s not always reflected in the scoring margins, though.

The most astonishing thing here is that the vast disparity in recruiting talent. Wisconsin ranks 37th in total roster talent according to the 247 Composite, but even crazier is the difference in blue-chip recruits — 74% of Ohio State’s roster is composed of four- or five-star recruits, while just 7% of Wisconsin’s roster (six players) consists of former blue-chippers.

When Ohio State has the ball

Ohio State Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense

Teams OSU Offense UW Defense
Teams OSU Offense UW Defense
S&P+ 5 1
Overall SR+ 2 11
Overall IsoPPP+ 3 7
Rushing S&P+ 2 9
Rush SR 1 (57.4%) 11 (34.5%)
Rush IsoPPP 37 6
Opp Rate 2 (48.9%) 25 (34.3%)
Stuff Rate 2 (12%) 63 (19.6%)
Adj. Line Yards 8 25
Passing S&P+ 2 9
Passing SR 6 (49.2%) 3 (29.5%)
Pass IsoPPP 37 41
Adj. Sack Rate 41 10
Avg FP 24 (31.5) 30 (27.7)
Drives 7 (5.34) 1 (2.93)

Michigan was the best defense Ohio State had seen — until this week. Wisconsin has the country’s best defense according to the S&P+, and it’s extremely difficult to find any relative weaknesses.

They’re ninth in both rushing and passing S&P+, don’t allow big plays, and are third-best at preventing efficient ones. They’re the best team in the country in points allowed per opponent scoring opportunity (2.93!) and the best in opponent red zone touchdown percentage (30% — tops by a wide margin).

Their starting inside linebackers both have double-digit run stuffs, and defensive back Nick Nelson is tied for second in the country in passes defensed. Wisconsin is top overall in defensive havoc rate, fueled entirely by the linebackers (1st) and secondary (1st), as opposed to the defensive line (111th).

The Badgers get better as the game goes on, averaging 14th in defensive S&P+ in the first half, but 6th in the second half.

Wisconsin hasn’t allowed a single run of 30+ yards, and only seven of 20-29 yards (4th).


So how can Ohio State score on the Badgers? There are a few possibilities:

  1. Despite ranking 9th in rushing S&P+, there might be some slight vulnerabilities on the ground, as the Badgers rank 25th in both adjusted line yards and opportunity rate, and don’t create an overwhelming number of negative plays in the run game, ranking 63rd in stuff rate. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are one of the best pairs of running backs in the country, and the OSU run game now ranks 2nd overall in the S&P+. Both backs have over a 47.5% opportunity rate, and Ohio State only allows a run stuff on 12% (2nd overall) of runs. That suggests that Ohio State at least shouldn’t fall behind the sticks on early run downs, and could have at least moderate success in 5-9 yard runs, which are the bread and butter of the offense. Only three teams have averaged more than four yards per carry against the Badgers — Nebraska, Maryland, and Illinois, and Ohio State’s rushing attack is far superior to all of those.
  2. Only four teams have been able to crack even a hundred total rushing yards against the Badgers, but that might be due to opposing offenses opting to pass pretty heavily against the Wisconsin defense. On standard downs, opposing offenses pass on 44.9% of plays, which ranks 116th in opponent run rate, and on 65.9% of passing downs (80th). That suggests that opposing offensive coordinators have often decided that the best way to attack the Badgers is by throwing early. Nebraska’s Tanner Lee averaged 7.7 yards per pass and had 277 total passing yards in their early October game. So we might see more mesh routes and RPOs than we did against Michigan last week. And expect both runs and passes to try and stretch Wisconsin horizontally, while the Buckeyes will likely also continue to use called runs without options — likely no matter which quarterback is in the game.
  3. A fast start would help immensely. Not only is Wisconsin a little worse defensively in the first half, but their offense isn’t exactly notable for quick strikes (ranking 63rd in overall IsoPPP). Ohio State’s offense has generally been solid early, ranking 2nd and 3rd in first and second quarter offensive S&P+, but in big games they’ve often gotten behind due to defensive and special teams errors.
  4. A little about Dwayne Haskins. Apart from last week against Michigan, almost all of Haskins’ snaps have been in garbage time — but Haskins has nevertheless been very solid, completing 70% of his passes at 9.1 yards per attempt. Haskins playing could have the benefit of surprise, since Wisconsin would have limited game film to prepare with. The existing film from the Michigan game shows a conservative offense that is not as focused on the read option game, relying more on called runs and Haskins’ stellar arm. If Haskins plays, expect Wisconsin to prepare extensively for called runs where the guard and center pull — where Ohio State found a lot of success last week with Barrett out of the game. But to be clear: a 100% healthy Barrett still gives this team the best chance to win next week.
  5. Taking advantage of red zone opportunities will be absolutely critical. As mentioned above, Wisconsin is the best defense in the country at preventing touchdowns in the red zone and limiting the success of scoring opportunities. Expect field goals and fourth down attempts on drives past the Wisconsin 40 yard line. In those short yardage situations, it’s at least good that the Badgers rank 61st in power success rate (allowing successful conversions on a third of opponents’ short yardage runs).

When Wisconsin has the ball

Wisconsin Offense vs. Ohio State Defense

Teams UW Offense OSU Defense
Teams UW Offense OSU Defense
S&P+ 40 12
Overall SR+ 20 6
Overall IsoPPP+ 15 9
Rushing S&P+ 26 1
Rush SR 39 (45.5%) 5 (33.5%)
Rush IsoPPP 38 15
Opp Rate 21 (42.9%) 2 (27.6%)
Stuff Rate 23 (16.4%) 12 (24.3%)
Adj. Line Yards 22 1
Passing S&P+ 9 20
Passing SR 16 (46.8%) 35 (36.9%)
Pass IsoPPP 49 13
Adj. Sack Rate 80 26
Avg FP 23 (31.7) 12 (26.6)
Drives 19 (5.03) 20 (3.85)

Wisconsin, like Michigan and Iowa, has an offense that can exploit some issues with the Ohio State linebackers while potentially neutralizing the Buckeye defensive line.

The Badgers present two big concerns. First, Jonathan Taylor has essentially been the high volume version of JK Dobbins. They have nearly identical stat lines, even from the advanced stats:

  • Dobbins: 164 carries, 7.3 yards per carry, 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity, 47.6% opportunity rate.
  • Taylor: 258 carries, 7 yards per carry, 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity, 47.7% opportunity rate.

The difference, of course, is that Ohio State has Mike Weber and J.T. Barrett (assuming Barrett plays), while Wisconsin’s second-leading rusher, Bradrick Shaw, averages just 3.8 yards per carry with a 31.3% opportunity rate. Iowa found success with Akrum Wadley and Michigan found success running with Karan Higdon and Chris Evans through pro-style attacks that exploited the Ohio State linebackers’ ability to keep contain. Taylor is better than those three running backs.

Second, Wisconsin has a dangerously efficient passing game (16th in success rate) where tight end Troy Fumagalli is the leading target with 38 total catches this season. Ohio State has struggled against tight ends and running backs as pass catchers, and the 6’6 Fumagalli is one of the best in the country. He was the leading receiver in last year’s game, with seven catches for 84 yards. It, of course, doesn’t help that Greg Schiano’s attention was at least a little divided this week due to the Tennessee mess.

But Wisconsin’s offense isn’t unstoppable:

  1. They’re largely predictable in terms of run/pass balance — running on 77.1% of standard downs (7th) and passing on 69.3% of passing downs (87th). Essentially, they run early and throw late — it’s just that Hornibrook has been very effective throwing even on passing downs, with the 7th-best passing-downs success rate.
  2. Adding to their predictability, they have one of the slowest paces in the country — literally, at 128th in adjusted pace. That’s a huge negative when you’re down early and you’re trying to get back in the game, but that’s also not a situation that Wisconsin has found themselves in much this season, running only 32 total plays this season with a two-score deficit. It’s also not good if you go three-and-out, and the Badgers are 45th in first down rate, getting a first down on roughly 75% of drives. Going slow is a great way to limit total possessions and keep scoring margins tight.
  3. Wisconsin’s offensive line is good, but not great. They’re solid in the run game, ranking 22nd in adjusted line yards and 23rd in stuff rate, but they rank 80th in adjusted sack rate, going up against Ohio State’s 26th-ranked adjusted sack rate defense. Hopefully pass protection problems plus run/pass predictability will add up to additional interceptions for Hornibrook, who already has 13 this year.

Takeaways

  1. Wisconsin’s defense is incredible, ranking 9th against the run and the pass, and best in the country in finishing drives and red zone touchdown percentage.
  2. The Badgers aren’t the best at piling up run stuffs though, ranking 63rd.
  3. Opposing offenses have tended to pass heavily against the Badgers’ defense — their defense has the 116th-highest standard downs run rate.
  4. Jonathan Taylor is every bit as good as J.K. Dobbins (47.7% opportunity rate, 6.7 highlight yards per opportunity), and has a much higher carry volume.
  5. Alex Hornibrook has been surprisingly efficient, with the 9th-overall passing S&P+ offense and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. Their tight end is their leading target.
  6. The Badgers offensive line is 80th in adjusted sack rate and Hornibrook does have 13 interceptions, though.

Picks

  • S&P+: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 24, 56.3% win probability
  • F/+: Wisconsin by .1, Ohio State’s win probability is 49.8%
  • Adj. S&P+: Ohio State by 6.8, 65.3% win probability
  • My pick: Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 21