It seems like forever since Ohio State last played for the Big Ten Championship.
It’s been 1093 days, to be exact.
1093 days after that beautiful game, Ohio State is back in Indianapolis, playing against the same Wisconsin program that stood in their way then. There’s even more up to chance this time, as the Buckeyes once again need an impressive victory to push themselves into the College Football Playoff, while this Badgers team is not only much better than 2014, but has playoff dreams of their own.
So with that in mind, here are five things I’m watching for tomorrow as Ohio State plays Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship
The good news about J.T. Barrett’s knee injury
Say what you want about J.T. Barrett, but the dude is one tough S.O.B. He’s apparently been having his injured meniscus popped back into place all season—which is a thing that’s safe, I guess?— and despite re-injuring it against Michigan and needing surgery on Sunday, it looks like he’s going to play. In an odd way, the injury has its benefits for the Ohio State offense.
In theory, it’s going to force Urban Meyer and Kevin Wilson to not be so reliant on Barrett in the run game—to the extent that Meyer can resist running his QB, at least— and that means more Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins. The two combined for 17 carries after Barrett went out against Michigan, and —hopefully— earned the trust of the coaching staff that someone other than No. 16 can close out a big game.
It’s hard to expect that he’ll be a complete non-factor in the run game, but any time the coaches can’t rely on ‘Barrett right, Barrett left,’ as a default is good news for the offense.
The bad news about Barrett’s knee injury
For all of my grumbling about Barrett’s carries, his scrambling bailed them out multiple times last week, including the play he was injured on:
Against a Wisconsin defense that’s almost as good as Michigan at getting after the quarterback, (10th in Adjusted Sack Rate) how often will Barrett need to escape the pocket, and more importantly, will he even be able to?
The offense has been at its worst when Barrett’s been under constant pressure (hello Oklahoma, Iowa, and Michigan), and a hobbled No. 16 against Wisconsin’s aggressive front seven is a recipe for disaster.
I don’t mean to be overly negative here, but we’d really better hope that either 1) the running game is doing enough damage that Wisconsin can’t focus on sending the house at Barrett on passing downs or 2) the short passing game that worked so well in the second half versus UM is on point again. If not, it’s going to be a long day for the offense.
Alex Hornibrook and the 30-pass threshold
Speaking of quarterback play: On our Big Ten Championship preview episode of The Hangout in the Holy Land, I asked Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter what he thought of Wisconsin’s chances of winning if Badgers QB Alex Hornibrook was forced to throw 30 times. The answer: Not great.
Hornibrook hasn’t thrown more than 28 passes in a game this season, and that’s probably the way the Badgers would like to keep things tomorrow. While he’s made some incredible throws at times, he’s also mistake prone, as evidenced by these John O’Korn-esque throws in the Iowa and Michigan games:
Hornibrook has thrown interceptions in all but three of UW’s games, and 13 overall. If Ohio State can either build a lead, or contain the UW run game enough to make Hornibrook make some throws, they should be able to force him into at least one potential game-changing mistake.
Someone cover Troy Fumagalli, please
Ohio State has been baaaaaaaad at covering tight ends this season, especially against some of the old-school style of offenses they’ve faced. In case you forgot what that looked like, here’s a refresher:
The fun continues
Hey look it gets worse
You’ll notice that not all the plays in those GIF’s were completions —thank god for John O’Korn— but the point still stands. For whatever reason, Ohio State’s linebackers get lost in coverage at an absurd rate, and that’s bad news against Wisconsin. They not only run a similar style of offense, but also have the best tight end in the conference in Troy Fumagalli.
If the Badgers run game is clicking —like Iowa and Michigan’s were— it’s hard to feel confident that the linebackers can reverse their trend of getting caught in no man’s land on play-action, which means a big game from Fumagalli and the other 18 tight ends Wisconsin likes to use.
There’s more at stake than just a playoff berth
Let’s disregard the potential playoff spot that’s on the line for a second. Since 2015, Ohio State has done some pretty incredible things. 33 total wins, three double-digit win seasons, an ungodly amount of NFL Draft picks, a Fiesta Bowl win, and another College Football Playoff appearance, to name a few. What’s gotten lost in the shuffle has been the Big Ten Championship.
Tomorrow’s going to be the first time the Buckeyes have even played for the conference title since 2014, which seems impossible given the amount of success they’ve had the last three years. So whether they make the playoff or not, winning tomorrow’s game would be a big accomplishment for the program.
Ohio State is at a point right now where anything short of a national championship feels like a missed opportunity, and that’s a great place to be at as a program. But, If they win and get left out of the playoff, don’t let that take away from your enjoyment of the season. Runs like this don’t last forever, and as we’ve seen the past two seasons, even just getting to Indianapolis isn’t a given.