It seems as though we’ve heard this multiple times— remember when we were worried about Cincinnati and Nebraska?—but Wisconsin and their No. 1 ranked defense will really and truly be the greatest test the Ohio State Buckeyes face in the regular season.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said it best in his press conference on Tuesday.
“I think it’s always a good benchmark to figure out where you’re at,” Day said. “This is the No. 1 defense in the country and we consider ourselves one of the best offenses in the country...This is the ultimate test.”
Ohio State is, in fact, one of the best offenses in the country. They rank No. 3 in rushing offense with 287.1 yards per game and No. 1 in third down conversion percentage (56%). Running back J.K. Dobbins is No. 4 in rushing yards per game (135.3) and No. 1 in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry (7.07).
And then there’s the whole dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields thing, who has completed 70.7 percent of his passes for 1,492 yards with 22 touchdowns and only one interception.
All this to say, we know what Ohio State’s offense can do to a defense. The question is, what can they do to the best defense in the country? To start, they’ll have to outsmart a trio of persistent linebackers.
Senior linebacker Zack Baun
If there’s anyone the Buckeyes should not take their eyes off of, its 6-foot-3, 235-pound outside linebacker Zack Baun. Baun has 30 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 8 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, and leads the Badgers in TFL (11).
Baun is incredibly agile, and his power coming off the edge is his money maker. He will be a constant presence in Fields’ peripheral until the clock strikes 0:00.
“They got really good rushers on the edge,” Day said. “Baun does a great job in one-on-one situations. He’s very active and powerful, especially in third down. And those linebackers do a great job, as well, of adding on or blitzing in different situations.”
However, the NFL-bound linebacker has more than just Fields’ to worry about, but Dobbins’ and backup running back Master Teague’s—who averages 7 yards per carry—as well.
If Baun can do that, the Buckeyes will have a rough day in terms of positive yardage.
Zack Baun completely destroyed Michigan's offensive line in a big win for Wisconsin. pic.twitter.com/LX6QnyFJoR— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 23, 2019
Want more defensive touchdowns you say?— George Balekji NBC15 (@GeorgeBalekji) September 28, 2019
Zack Baun x Noah Burks = 24-3 Wisconsin lead over Northwestern pic.twitter.com/8p9qnA6ITL
Senior linebacker Chris Orr
While there wasn’t a lot them, Orr was definitely a highlight for Wisconsin’s defense last Saturday against the Illinois Fighting Illini. The 6-foot, 224-pound linebacker had nine tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble.
Chris Orr just murdered someone pic.twitter.com/asf661xaVW— Ian Kenyon (@IanKenyonNFL) October 19, 2019
Orr has had at least one sack per game over the last four weeks, and is a major reason why teams struggle running the ball against Wisconsin. Opposing offenses average just 2.18 yards per carry against the Badgers defense.
So far this year, Orr has racked up 38 tackles— 20 of which were solo—8 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 6 QB hurries, 2 pass breakups, and 2 forced fumbles, making him one of the best LBs in the Big Ten.
Sophomore linebacker Jack Sanborn
Age is just a number. Sanborn surpasses the two senior linebackers, leading the Badgers with 40 total tackles. He has also recorded 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception.
In combination with Orr and Baun, it’s easy to see why teams struggle to move the ball against the Badgers’ LBs.
“You’re not sitting there saying, ‘here is this particular guy and he’s the only guy they have’,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio described the trio. “I think they operate very well together. They are very well-tied together. You can tell its team defense. They have a lot of guys making a lot of plays and they are bringing people from every direction at times.”
Senior linebacker Chris Orr on sophomore linebacker Jack Sanborn: "He's going to be great by the time he leaves here. He might be one of the best by the time he leaves here." #Badgers— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) October 1, 2019
Jack Sanborn says GIMME THAT pic.twitter.com/CP89QbSdNQ— IKE Badgers (@IKE_Badgers) September 7, 2019
Honorable mention: Junior safety Eric Burrell and sophomore defensive end Matt Henningsen
Burrell has been the Badgers’ best playmaker in the secondary with 18 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 interceptions. Henningsen is responsible for 12 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and 2 touchdowns.
End of the 3rd— George Balekji NBC15 (@GeorgeBalekji) September 28, 2019
#8 Wisconsin 14
That top ranked Badgers defense steps up once again, as Eric Burrell strips Hunter Johnson with Matt Henningsen there for his second big-man touchdown of the season. pic.twitter.com/UaJ8r89qjS
Wisconsin is seeking a rebound, an upset, a conference championship, and a spot back in the playoff conversation. Their loss to Illinois was a fluke, Wisconsin’s No. 1 defense will be bringing their best effort to the ‘Shoe on Saturday.