By now, the incident with a cameraman that left J.T. Barrett's already-shaky knee in bad enough shape to force him to leave The Game last weekend, has lit the college football world on fire. It was clear long before he left in the third quarter that Barrett wasn't at 100%, and the re-aggravation of his meniscus injury led to backup QB Dwayne Haskins being called in to execute the come-from-behind victory effort against Michigan.
Ever coy, Urban Meyer has released a depth chart for this weekend's Big Ten Championship Game that lists Barrett as the "probable" starter. While it's entirely possible that Barrett is healthy enough to play against Wisconsin, Meyer has learned a lesson or two from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, and he has roughly 59 reasons to keep quiet even if he knows Barrett's status one way or the other.
So let's get ahead of the gamesmanship and assume that Barrett can't take the field against the Badgers. That would leave the B1GCG and a potential outside playoff berth in Haskins' hands. What might Haskins do, given what we know Wisconsin's defense is capable of?
Name: Dwayne Haskins
Year: RS Freshman
Height/Weight: 6'3, 214 lbs.
Line: 40-57 passing, 565 pass yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT; 21 carries, 107 rush yards
The from-behind win over Michigan was Haskins' coming-out party, but he's made solid, if low-impact, contributions to the Buckeye offense in relief all year. (It's a testament to just how high-octane Ohio State has been in 2017 that Haskins has gotten snaps in eight of 12 regular season games, which feels like an insanely high percentage.)
Now, there's a good chance—even if he doesn't get the start—that Haskins will be called upon once again to take on a national power of a defense on a huge stage.
On paper, this is not really a matchup that you want to thrust your young backup quarterback into. Wisconsin's defense has been absolutely smothering, carrying the load even when their offense is struggling. It's the No. 1 defense by S&P+ in the nation, and is No. 2 nationally in points allowed. There's zero margin for error when you play the Badgers, who play a juiced-up version of Tressel Ball that would've made The Vest's mouth water.
To wit: Wisconsin is actually only a little bit above average when it comes to creating tackles for loss or preventing short-to-mid-range power runs, but they absolutely slam the door shut the second you cross midfield. They're the country's best team at preventing points on drives that make it inside the 40; the long field goal often feels like opposing teams' only shot to get on the board. (They allowed just 14 points to Iowa the week after the Hawkeyes hung 55 on the Buckeyes, for example.)
The Badgers' D is led by impact linebacker T.J. Edwards, who ranks either first or second on the team in most major categories—tackles, TFLs, INTs, run stuffs, you name it. He's joined on the inside of the LB corps by Ryan Connelly, whose numbers have been almost as eye-popping as Edwards' have.
This tandem is a huge contributor to the Badgers' No. 1 LB havoc rate and overall havoc rate rankings, the stat that tracks how often a defense blows up an offensive play for a loss, a breakup, or a turnover. You can bet they'll be gunning for Haskins (or Barrett) as Ohio State faces the unenviable task of trying to run a read-option offense against one of the fastest defenses in football.
What to watch for
If Haskins starts, the crux of this game will be whether or not he can get up to speed in the read-option quickly. He ultimately did enough with his arm and his legs to help carry the Buckeyes to victory last weekend, but on four or five occasions, he made the wrong read at the mesh point and either got the RB blown up in the backfield or was brought down for no gain himself. Against a Badger defense that's been even better than Michigan's has, that can't happen if the Buckeyes want to win this game.
We can be reasonably optimistic about what Haskins can do in the passing game, though. He went 6-of-7 last week, showing off what we've all been hearing for a long time: he's a tremendous arm talent. Size-wise, he's just about the mid-point of J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones; he might also be the mid-point of their running and passing talents.
There are very few weaknesses on Wisconsin's defense, and no real silver lining to point to—they're equally ungenerous to the pass and the run, and flat out don't get scored on. The "ain't played nobody Pawwwwl" critique only holds if you're able to square the circle of Ohio State struggling against Michigan and losing to Iowa, both of whom Wisconsin dispatched in convincing fashion.
That said, the best offense that Wisconsin has faced so far in 2017 belongs to...Lane Kiffin and FAU, who have crept up to No. 8 in the S&P+ rankings. The Buckeyes got a taste of what it's like to face a top-five defense last week in Ann Arbor; the Badgers have yet to learn what it's like to take on a top-five offense. Until Saturday.