The stakes couldn’t be higher for Ohio State and Wisconsin on Saturday night in Indianapolis. Not only is the Big Ten title at stake, but a spot in the College Football Playoff could be given to the winner. If the Badgers beats the Buckeyes, Wisconsin will punch their ticket to the playoff. If Ohio State wins, the playoff picture isn’t quite as clear, but there are some out there who think the Buckeyes would be in with a win over Wisconsin.
Ohio State closed out their regular season on a high note last Saturday, beating Michigan for the sixth straight season. The 31-20 victory over the Wolverines didn’t come easy though, as not only did the Buckeyes have to navigate a 14-0 deficit early on, but Ohio State had to deal with a knee injury to J.T. Barrett. Details on how exactly the senior Ohio State quarterback was first injured are still murky, but Barrett tried this best to play through the pain before it was finally too much to handle in the third quarter.
Redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins gave Ohio State fans some optimism for life after Barrett with his performance against the Wolverines. Haskins took over for Barrett with six minutes left in the third quarter, and just a few minutes later on third down, Haskins delivered a 27-yard strike to Austin Mack to move the sticks. Just two plays later, the redshirt freshman scrambled down to the 1-yard line, and J.K. Dobbins scored on the next play to give the Buckeyes the lead for good.
This will be Ohio State’s third appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, and the second against Wisconsin. In 2014, Ohio State saw Barrett injured in the Michigan game, leaving Cardale Jones to start against the Badgers in Indianapolis. The rest is history, as the 59-0 win over Wisconsin propelled the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff, where the combination of Jones and Ezekiel Elliott would power Ohio State to the first College Football Playoff title.
Ohio State has gotten the better of Wisconsin in the five meetings between the schools since 2011, but the Badgers haven’t made things easy for the Buckeyes. Four of those five meeting have been decided by seven points or less, with the 2012 and 2016 meetings going to overtime. The Buckeyes hold a 58-18-5 advantage in the series.
Wisconsin is one of just two undefeated teams left in the FBS this year, with UCF being the other team yet to lose. Dating back to last year’s Cotton Bowl, Wisconsin’s 13-game win streak is the longest active win streak in the FBS. A win over Ohio State on Saturday would match the longest win streak in school history for the Badgers.
The Badgers have become a fixture in the Big Ten Championship Game, with Saturday night’s game being Wisconsin’s fifth appearance in the seven-year history of the game. After winning their first two appearances, Wisconsin has lost the last two times they have played in the title game, falling to Ohio State in 2014, and Penn State last year.
Ohio State’s biggest advantages
Line up. If Ohio State wants to throw Wisconsin’s offense off track, they’ll have to find a way to put some pressure on Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook. So far this year the Badgers have done a good job at keeping their quarterback clean, only allowing 17 sacks this season, but Ohio State has some defensive linemen unlike any Wisconsin has seen this year.
After Tyquan Lewis won the award in 2016, Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa was named the Big Ten’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year on Thursday. The sophomore led Ohio State with six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss this year. Even though the stats might not be as glamorous as the ones his brother Joey put up in Columbus, they are still impressive considering the attention the younger Bosa drew this season.
It’ll be pick your poison for Wisconsin on Saturday night. If you devote extra resources to Bosa, it’ll leave Sam Hubbard, Lewis, and the other talented Buckeye defensive linemen with favorable matchups. The only knock on Hornibrook’s performance this year has been the 13 interceptions he has thrown. If Ohio State’s defensive line is able to put pressure on Hornibrook, it could force the quarterback to add to his interception total.
Ground and pound. As if Ohio State’s job didn’t have a hard enough task trying to find holes in a very tough Wisconsin defense, they’ll have to do so with a quarterback that isn’t 100% healthy. Even though it might not seem wise to test the nation’s top rushing defense, Ohio State is going to have to do just that if they want to win the Big Ten Championship.
Luckily, Ohio State has the combination of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber at running back to try and soften up the Wisconsin rush defense. With all the talk of how great Jonathan Taylor’s freshman season has been, Dobbins has to feel slighted because he has put together a strong first campaign in Columbus. Dobbins is just the fourth freshman running back in Ohio State history to rush for over 1,000 yards, and is just 48 yards shy of breaking Maurice Clarett’s record of 1,237 yards rushing in his first year.
After spending the first part of the season dealing with a hamstring injury, Mike Weber has had some of the best performances of the season over the last three games. Not only did Weber rush for over 100 yards in wins over Michigan State and Illinois, but the sophomore’s 25-yard rushing touchdown sealed Ohio State’s win over Michigan. With the lack of action early on in the year, Weber is a lot fresher later in the season, which could help him do some damage against the Badger defense.
Wisconsin has been able to work through some injuries in their linebacking corps this season. The Badgers will be tested greatly on Saturday night as they haven’t seen an offense with the type of explosiveness that Ohio State possesses. When the Buckeyes get into trouble it is because they abandon to run, which wouldn’t be wise to do, especially with questions about the stability of J.T. Barrett’s knee.
Pressure packed. Ohio State may be the favorite according to Vegas on Saturday night, but all of the pressure will be on Wisconsin. If Ohio State wins, there isn’t any guarantee that the Buckeyes will make the College Football Playoff, while the same can’t be said for the Badgers, who will undoubtedly be a part of the playoff with a win over Ohio State.
Wisconsin fans might have a little more optimism about Saturday night’s contest if they were taking on any other team than Ohio State. The Badgers are just the eighth Big Ten team to start a season 12-0 and they need just one more win to make their first College Football Playoff, but to get there, they have to beat a team they have lost to five straight times.
As if the pressure of beating Ohio State wasn’t enough, Paul Chryst has to match wits with Urban Meyer, who has posted a 39-15 record against Top-25 foes in his coaching career, including an 18-5 record in those games while at Ohio State. Meyer’s teams perform even better as the pressure mounts, as evidenced by a 12-5 record against Top-5 teams with four wins in six games at Ohio State.
Wisconsin’s biggest advantages
Taylor made. Want to slow down Wisconsin? Stopping Jonathan Taylor is a good place to start. All you have to do is bottle up a running back who has rushed for 1,806 yards and 13 touchdowns this year. Taylor is Wisconsin’s most productive freshman running back since Ron Dayne, who rushed for 1,863 yards in his first season in Madison. Dayne added another 246 yards in the Copper Bowl, but in 1996, bowl game stats weren’t applied to season totals. Taylor is 120 yards shy of passing Adrian Peterson’s national record of 1,925 rushing yards as a freshman.
The New Jersey running back has rushed for at least 100 yards in nine games this year, and gone for over 200 rushing yards in three games. While most freshman wear down as the season goes on, Taylor has gotten stronger, rushing for at least 130 yards in each of Wisconsin’s last four games. The durability of Taylor has helped Wisconsin handle some of the injuries they have suffered in their receiving corps.
Wisconsin will be hoping Taylor won’t be slowed by the Buckeyes like Melvin Gordon was in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game. Ohio State’s rush defense has been suspect at times this year, giving up at least 100 yards on the ground in half of their games. The low point came last month against Iowa, where Ohio State gave up 243 yards on the ground to the Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes have been plagued by inconsistent play from their linebackers this year, which could be a recipe for disaster if they aren’t at the top of their game on Saturday night.
Badgering the competition. A week after trying to crack a stout Michigan defense, Ohio State is going to have an even tougher task against Wisconsin’s defense. Despite suffering some key injuries before and during the season, the Badgers defense is tops in the country, allowing just 236.9 yards per game, and 80 rushing yards per game.
Points could be tough to come by for Ohio State on Saturday night, as Wisconsin is allowing just 12 points per game, which is second-best in the country. After closing out the regular season with a 31-0 win over Minnesota, the only team to score against the Wisconsin defense was Michigan, since Iowa’s 14 points came from the Hawkeye defense.
Ohio State’s offense is undoubtedly the toughest Wisconsin has faced this year, but the Badgers are so well-coached that it’s hard to image the Buckeyes coming close to the nearly 44 points per game they are averaging on the season. Linebacker T.J. Edwards is one to keep an eye out for on Wisconsin’s defense, as the junior has registered 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions, which is tied with defensive back Joe Ferguson for team-high.
Grit and grind. Wisconsin football isn’t all that pretty, but it gets the job done. The Badgers have made a habit of grinding teams down throughout the year. One of the most amazing stats in college football this year is Wisconsin hasn’t trailed at all in the fourth quarter this year.
Only once this year have the Badgers trailed at halftime, and that came when Northwestern took a 10-7 lead to the halftime break in late-September. Wisconsin is outscoring opponents 226-58 in the second half, and holds a 118-21 edge over opponents in the fourth quarter.
Even though Alex Hornibrook has been turnover prone at times this year, he still gives Wisconsin a steadying hand at quarterback. Between Hornibrook and running back Jonathan Taylor, the Badger offense slowly eats away at their opponents before the Wisconsin attack is too much to handle for the opposition in the second half.
Even though Ohio State does have depth that make them more equipped to handle what Wisconsin does than any other team the Badgers have faced this year, what the Badgers do is frustrating their opponents and force them into mistakes. If the Badgers can rattle Ohio State like Iowa was able to do a month ago, it could be a long night for Buckeye Nation.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 24
Win probability: Ohio State 56.3%
The unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Which will win out? Ohio State’s explosive offense or Wisconsin’s smothering defense. The numbers like Ohio State to dash Wisconsin’s hopes of a perfect season in a game that will come down to the wire in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes should be able to overcome the concerns about J.T. Barrett’s health to win their second conference title under Urban Meyer.
While the numbers predict a win over Wisconsin, whether Ohio State will make the College Football Playoff if they beat the Badgers remains to be seen. The loss to Iowa in early November will be tough to overcome when going for a spot against the likes of Alabama, but there are some that think Ohio State’s body of work will be too impressive to pass up if the Buckeyes are victorious in Indianapolis.
How to watch, stream listen to: Wisconsin v. Ohio State:
Game time: Saturday Dec 2nd, 8:00 p.m. ET
Streaming: FOX Sports Go
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM
Know your enemy: Bucky’s 5th Quarter