Saturday’s Big Ten Championship matchup between the No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes and No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers will be one of the biggest games of the year. With the Badgers still undefeated, and the Buckeyes still unsure of who will start at quarterback, the game — with College Football Playoff implications — is setting up to be anything but boring.
The Badgers demolished the Big Ten West division, and seem to have all the tools they’d need to capitalize on Ohio State’s known weaknesses. Will the Buckeyes be able to slow down Jonathan Taylor? (I mean, they did a good job against Saquon Barkley.) Will another big tight end make the Buckeye linebackers look silly? (Probably.)
To give us more insight into Wisconsin, we talked to Bucky’s 5th Quarter’s Jake Kocorowski for some Q&A.
Wisconsin boasts one of the country's best freshman rushers, how has Jonathan Taylor changed the offensive gameplan for the Badgers and/or what does he bring to the future of the offense?
Taylor has been a revelation. When fall camp practices were open to the media, it was all Bradrick Shaw and Chris James getting reps primarily with the ones (note: the former is now out for the rest of the year after an injury versus Minnesota). Once the practices were closed, we heard glimpses of Taylor's talent, especially with a Friday night scrimmage that was attended by the Big Ten Network. After being listed as a co-starter week one versus Utah State, he's continued to rise and become one of the nation's best rushers.
How did he do it? He shows a maturity on (patience, vision and bouncing back from mistakes) and off the field (acknowledging he needs to improve, i.e. fumbling), then combines that with his physicality, power and speed to be the most explosive back since Melvin Gordon. He is a different type of runner from Gordon, but he can bounce off of would-be tacklers and burst into the next level in the open field. Wisconsin has a dynamic tailback who is a home run threat when he has the ball in his hands and is behind that Wisconsin offensive line.
For the future, he's only scratched the surface of what's possible. I feel he still needs to work on pass blocking a bit, and he's shown flashes in the screen pass game. If he continues to improve, it just adds that explosive potential into the Wisconsin offense in both the run and passing attacks.
Wisconsin's defense can be so good, especially at stopping the run, but is there a schematic or talent reason that they're middle of the pack in tackles for loss?
Jim Leonhard's defense is actually tied for 30th in the nation in tackles for loss, averaging 6.9 per game, but there are five other Big Ten teams ahead of them so the conference apparently is known for good defense :-) . I would not say there's a talent reason, because last year's squad only recorded 74 TFLs and 34 total sacks on the season with the likes of NFL-bound T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel and current Cal head coach Justin Wilcox as coordinator. This year, they've recorded 83 tackles for loss and 39 sacks, the latter holding them tied for eighth in the nation with Michigan.
Only Watt registered more than 10 tackles for loss on the team in 2016, while three players (linebackers T.J. Edwards, Garret Dooley and Ryan Connelly) have hit that mark so far this season with a few more within reach.
They have faced a decent amount of spread teams who like that pace-based scheme, so sometimes that will not allow those defenders to make plays behind the line of scrimmage as quickly; for the most part, I think it's just a product of players not trying to do too much, and Wisconsin stresses playing their 1/11th and not trying to do more than they can do. They know the system, and Leonhard's scheme allows players to fly to the ball and not overthink things. It's worked so far, as they rank No. 1 in the nation in total and rush defense and No. 2 in scoring defense.
If Ohio State focuses on Jonathan Taylor and TE Troy Fumagalli, what other offensive weapons might the Badgers rely on?
Those two definitely stand out, especially with Iowa's tight ends having a big day against Ohio State last month. There are a trio of young wide receivers (sophomore A.J. Taylor, redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor and true freshman Danny Davis) who have emerged to help break big plays in the passing (and for Pryor, even rushing) attack. They only combined for 49 receptions on the season, but they average 16.5 yards per catch. They've come on of late with Quintez Cephus out for the season and seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing now off the team.
Also, tight end Kyle Penniston's role may increase with Zander Neuville now out for the remainder of the season. Fullbacks Austin Ramesh and Alec Ingold, in a position that's football's version of an endangered species, provide stout lead-blocking but also can make plays out of the backfield, especially in third-and-short and goal line situations. You'll see B5Q call the #FullbackDive hashtag on Twitter in those situations on Saturday. Running backs Chris James and Garrett Groshek will be the key reserves for Wisconsin in Indy.
How would the defensive strategy change if Wisconsin doesn't have to account for the running ability of Barrett (either because his injury keeps him pocket-bound, or Haskins plays)?
I think that it changes some but Wisconsin's always looking to take away an opponent's rushing attack. Without a mobile Barrett, UW will still have to bottle up J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and a rushing offense that's averaging over 250 yard per game on the ground. They know they have to stay in their passing lanes and not over-commit to allow any quarterbacks to scramble, though inside linebackers Connelly and Edwards can flat out fly on the field, especially the former.
However, not having a mobile quarterback could allow Leonhard to draw up some pressures, enabling his players to pin their ears back to rush on a few passing situations. That's really if Wisconsin can contain the passing game. This starting secondary is physical, which has led to some yellow flags defensively, but this is a better unit that last year with the likes of Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson and returning starter Derrick Tindal at the corners. There's confidence in Wisconsin's defensive backs, especially with three veteran safeties in Natrell Jamerson, Joe Ferguson and D'Cota Dixon, and if they can limit the passing attack, it will only help their chances.
Wisconsin's FG kicker is 12-of-14, but only has two longer than 40 yards this season. In a close game, how much would Chryst rely on him?
This season, they have not really needed Rafael Gaglianone to kick longer field goals. He does have a 52-yarder to his credit this season, and hit two out of three from 50-plus back in 2014, so he has the leg and the accuracy to be relied upon.
He did miss most of the 2016 season with a back injury, but he has come back with what appears to be the same strength he had before being sidelined. With an indoor stadium like Lucas Oil, it should be interesting how far they'll let him attempt a field goal.
What are your keys to the game, and a game prediction?
For Wisconsin defensively, it's to contain J.T. Barrett (if or when he plays) in both the passing and rushing attacks of Ohio State. Yes, easier said than done, but if the Badgers can disrupt the Buckeyes' quarterback like Iowa did, it can only lead to good things. They also have to bottle up the dynamic duo of Weber and Dobbins, but I feel the team speed for Wisconsin can do so. Obviously, they cannot be beat with the deep ball as was the case in last year's conference championship.
Offensively, establish that rushing attack with Taylor and mix it up with James, but also utilize Fumagalli--and utilize him as well as Iowa did against Ohio State a few weeks ago. Can Fumagalli and Penniston snag four touchdown passes like the Hawkeyes' tight ends did?
The biggest key, though, is to not let Wisconsin shoot itself in the foot. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown 21 touchdown passes this year, but also given up 13 interceptions. He'll throw a couple of passes each game that make fans squeamish. If he doesn't throw an interception on Saturday, Wisconsin has a great chance to win. If Taylor does not fumble (believe it's four or five lost fumbles this season), the Badgers have a great chance to win.
In the end, and not trying to be a homer, I think Wisconsin does pull out a win and make it into the College Football Playoff. Covering this team all year there's a combination of youthful explosiveness and veteran leadership/talent that has forged a very close team. Players in the past couple of weeks have noted how close this team is, an intangible that they all play for each other. Granted, how much of an immeasurable intangible can help against a talent-studded program like Ohio State remains to be seen. However, I think Wisconsin bottles up Ohio State's offense just enough, with the offense making plays with the tight ends and Taylor making some key runs.
I know I told Colton on the podcast earlier this week like 30-23 Wisconsin, but I think it's more 27-17 or 27-23 Wisconsin. If those turnovers take shape and the rushing attack is swallowed up, then it's an entirely different game in favor of the Buckeyes. Should be fun to cover down in Indy regardless.