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Wisconsin at a Glance: Previewing Ohio State’s Week 9 match-up

The Buckeyes’ most difficult test of the season (so far) is finally here, but just how good are the Badgers really?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Wisconsin at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One week ago, the forthcoming contest between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Ohio State Buckeyes looked like it had a legitimate shot to challenge LSU vs. Auburn for best game on the Week 9 schedule. Non-SEC loyalists favored a matchup between one of the college game’s most elite offenses against the top defense in the country in what figured to be a preview of the Big Ten Championship game. Getting to see Ohio State’s shockingly brilliant defense face their greatest offensive challenge of the season yet in running back Jonathan Taylor only ballooned viewing interest in the Midwest and beyond.

Then the Badgers got caught looking ahead a week, and subsequently awarded themselves the biggest “L” of the college football season thus far with a 24-23 loss to Illinois. Wisconsin was a 30+ point favorite heading into the game, making it the largest upset in nearly the last 40 years of Big Ten football.

So, unfortunately, this game now doesn’t quite have the luster it did throughout most of this college football season. That being said, Wisconsin’s performances prior to this game suggest the Badgers are still one of the most complete teams in college football, and it’s going to take another superb effort from Ohio State if they want to walk away with their eighth victory of the season.

Let’s take a look at how these two teams fare against each other on both sides of the ball:

Buckeye Offense vs. Badger Defense

Since the Internet seems to be big on the Joker lately, here’s one of the most memorable quotes from Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight:

“You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.... I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” —Heath Ledger as The Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)

Indeed, not only does Ohio State’s third-ranked scoring offense (49.7 ppg) serve as an unstoppable force opposite the immovable object that is Wisconsin’s top-ranked scoring defense (7.6 ppg), but it does seem as if these teams are destined to do this forever...

... or at least one more time in the Big Ten Championship given the current state of the B1G West.

Regardless, Ohio State’s offense is almost certainly going to have their hands full. One of the biggest reasons that Wisconsin has recorded four shutouts already this season is because they have absolutely locked down teams attempting to throw the ball. The Badgers are one of only three teams that have yet to allow over 1,000 total passing yards this season (the other two being Ohio State and Kansas State), and they allow the lowest pass completion percentage in college football by a margin of nearly five percent (43.8%, #2 Cincinnati trails them at 48.6%).

Where this game gets particularly scary for the Buckeyes is defending the Badgers’ pass rush. Wisconsin’s defensive front ranks in the top five out of 130 teams for all of Football Outsiders’ sack rating statistics, including:

  • 2nd overall in unadjusted sack rate outside of garbage time (14.1%)
  • 3rd overall in standard downs sack rate (12.2%)
  • 4th overall in passing downs sack rate (16.0%)

Conversely, the biggest weakness in Ohio State’s offensive attack this season has far and away been its pass protection. Using the same sack rate stats from Football Outsiders to evaluate offensive line play, the Buckeyes rank:

  • 78th overall in unadjusted sack rate outside of garbage time (6.6%)
  • 84th overall in standard downs sack rate (5.6%)
  • 79th overall in passing downs sack rate (8.3%)

Keep in mind, these are the numbers Ohio State’s offensive line has posted without having to face a single team that ranks in the top 25 in sack rate through nearly two months of the season (though to be fair, Cincinnati and Indiana rank 27th and 31st, respectively). The Buckeyes cannot afford to get into a ground-and-pound slugfest with a Badger team that firmly establishes their identity through the run game, so the offensive line is going to need to step up in order to give Justin Fields enough time to spread the ball around the gridiron.

Fortunately, it’s fair to also say that Wisconsin has yet to face a team with anything close to the wealth of play-making talent that Ohio State boasts at every skill position, so it will be interesting to see how the Badgers’ defense responds in the face of their own greatest challenge to date. Last week, Illinois successfully notched three touchdowns of over 25 yards on Wisconsin when they had previously allowed zero for the season, and two of those managed to come through the air. The officials in that game also called back a third 25+ yard passing TD on a controversial ineligible receiver downfield penalty against the Illini center.

Either way, as is the case with most football games, this contest will be won at the line of scrimmage. If the Ohio State offensive linemen can correctly identify their pass blocking assignments in the face of Wisconsin’s aggressive pass rush, Fields should have enough time to get the ball in the hands of the Buckeyes’ play-makers, and Wisconsin will have to play from behind. It will be the first time all season they’ve had to do so, as they have yet to trail in regulation for even a second of play in 2019 (technically, Illinois’ game-winning field goal went through as time expired).

Badger Offense vs. Buckeye Defense

If Ohio State is to come away with a victory, this is where the game will be won for them. While the Badgers’ defense matches up fairly evenly with the Buckeyes’ offense, the same cannot be said for when the ball belongs to Wisconsin. That’s not to say the Badgers’ offense is a slouch by any means, as they run out arguably the best halfback in college football on a weekly basis in Jonathan Taylor.

But their passing numbers certainly leave something desired, and it’s again important to stress that Wisconsin hasn’t trailed for a single moment of play this year that would require them to lean on their passing attack. Yes, the Badgers somehow shockingly lead college football with a team completion percentage of 77.0%, but they also have more sacks allowed (10) than touchdown passes (9) on the season, which is fairly embarrassing for a team considered a College Football Playoff contender merely a week ago. Wisconsin also ranks near the back of the Big Ten in team passing yards, having only thrown for more than the likes of Illinois, Rutgers, and Northwestern. Nothing anyone has seen so far from the Badgers suggests that they can make explosive plays through the air when it’s necessary for them to do so. Granted, they haven’t needed to yet.

Depending on how much confidence Ryan Day and Greg Mattison have in the Buckeye secondary, Ohio State can probably get away with stacking the box with seven and eight-man fronts for most of this game. That could spell big trouble for Wisconsin, as while Taylor is an absolute menace with the ball in his hands, the overall rushing numbers for the Badgers are not quite as elite as one would assume they are. Wisconsin’s team average of 5.10 yards per carry ranks only 30th among 130 teams, and their offensive line doesn’t boast a single top 20 rank among Football Outsiders’ offensive line run blocking efficiency stats. Conversely, Ohio State’s offensive line is tied with Clemson for third overall in team yards per carry (6.39), and the Buckeyes boast a top 16 ranking in all six of Football Outsiders’ run blocking efficiency stats (including four in the top six).

Ohio State’s rushing defense struggled somewhat in the initial competitive stages of the Northwestern game last week, but their defensive line still ranks in the top 13 for all six of Football Outsiders’ run defense efficiency stats (including four top four rankings and two number one overalls). Wisconsin may come out running angry in the wake of their upset, but unless the Badgers prove early on that they can do substantial damage through the air, I would expect Ohio State’s defense to hold them in check on their way to an impressive win.

The Bottom Line

Despite their historic upset loss — at least by Midwestern standards — last weekend, Wisconsin still checks in as a top ten team in Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings at #7 overall. This is a stout football team in the classic Big Ten mold of “Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust,” and any opponent would be well-advised to not try beating the Badgers at their own game. A slow, low-scoring, run-heavy affair with minimal turnovers or mistakes almost certainly favors Wisconsin.

But this Buckeye team is far and away the best the Badgers have had to square up against through the first two months of the 2019 season, and that lack of experience against this level of talent will make itself apparent fairly quickly. Sure, Ohio State doesn’t have a win against a current top-20 opponent this season either, but they’ve also been consistently impressive on both sides of the ball in every single game they’ve played so far. That’s not something Wisconsin can say given their performances against either of the Big Ten’s Prairie State teams this season.

Should the Buckeyes give Fields time to throw, continue to be the best run-blocking team in college football, and stack the box against an imbalanced Wisconsin offense; this game shouldn’t present too much of a challenge for an Ohio State team playing at home. For now, this should pan out as Ohio State’s signature win for the season, but things could wind up much different when these two teams inevitably face off again in Indianapolis. Beating the same team twice in a season is never easy, just ask Archie Griffin about UCLA.