This Dark Knight quote from my preview when these teams squared off at the end of October bears repeating:
“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)
I wasn’t kidding when I said the Buckeyes and Badgers were destined to do this forever, and here we are again.
On the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State has one final stop to make in Indianapolis before the selection show the following day. While there’s speculation that the Buckeyes are a lock for the Playoff regardless of the result in this one, it would obviously be much more comforting for Ohio State to lock up a match up with whatever #4 seed comes their way than risk a contest with one of the higher-ranked teams prior to the National Championship.
Still, as Archie Griffin will tell you about UCLA, beating the same team twice in a season is never an easy task. Wisconsin is fresh off a massive road win against Minnesota, and comes into this Big Ten Championship anxious to get revenge on a Buckeye team that has not only defeated them earlier this year, but has also beaten to outright humiliated them in previous conference championship games.
This contest figures to differ from the one at the end of October in a few different ways, so let’s take a look at why that’s the case:
Buckeye Offense vs. Badger Defense (Again)
Wisconsin’s defense is still very much the immovable object they were prior to their first meeting with Ohio State. The Badgers enter conference championship week ranked 9th in the FBS in rushing yards allowed per game (98.5 rypg), 5th in passing yards allowed per game (143.4 pypg), and boast the third highest sack and passing down sack rates in all of college football (12.1% and 16.2%, respectively). While they no longer lead the nation in allowed completion percentage by over five percent, they are still one of only two teams in the FBS to allow their opponents to complete an average of less than 50% of their passes (the other is Clemson).
When these two teams last played at the end of October, the Badgers held Justin Fields to his lowest throwing output of the season at just 167 yards. Fields only completed 12 of his 22 passing attempts, and only two of those completions went to wide receivers not named Chris Olave. Fields also took five sacks in that game, which was by far the highest total any team has had on Ohio State all season.
Given these results, it might seem counter-intuitive to have Ohio State air it out in the rematch, particularly when considering how much success the Buckeyes’ running game has had this season regardless of the opponent’s competence in stopping the ball on the ground. However, it’s absolutely worth noting that a big part of the reason the passing game didn’t work for either team in the October contest was because the game-time weather conditions were extremely unkind. Though temperature held steady in the low 50s, winds were gusting at up to 23 mph, and over half an inch of rain fell during the three hour window of the game alone, which significantly hindered on-field visibility for all players.
The indoor, climate-controlled environment that is the football cathedral of Lucas Oil Stadium should provide far better conditions for Fields and company to play their passing game in. Fields has had a QBR of over 90 in all but one of the games he’s gotten to attempt 25 passes in this season, and is coming off the best game of his career after throwing for over 300 yards and four touchdowns on the road against Michigan’s defense. Wisconsin’s pass defense looks elite on paper, but they also haven’t had to match up against many savvy aerial attacks this season given their Big Ten West schedule. The best passing game they have faced this year arguably came against Minnesota last week, and though the Badgers won that game by three full scores, they still allowed Golden Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan to throw for just under 300 yards and two touchdowns.
Buckeye fans will undoubtedly see a healthy diet of carries for J.K. Dobbins given his success in the previous game, but the Badgers still have a full tape of film from just over a month ago which they can use to correct their mistakes. Ohio State targeted Wisconsin’s interior defensive line on read options, and while the offensive line’s zone scheme execution has been remarkably consistent this season, the Badgers could employ late pre-snap adjustments and stunts to confuse the Buckeyes’ run-blocking assignments.
Therefore, between better playing conditions and an over-reliance on the run game last time around, I expect the bulk of Ohio State’s offensive success to come through the air on Saturday night. That’s going to require an offensive line that’s continued to struggle in pass protection to step up a bit, but Fields has proven himself enough of a slippery pocket/rollout presence to this point that I expect him to be able to navigate whatever backfield traffic comes his way. Look for K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, and Garrett Wilson to all have a significantly greater presence in the Big Ten Championship than they did the last time these teams met.
Badger Offense vs. Buckeye Defense (Again)
Frankly, this game should have been a shutout for the Buckeye defense in October. Wisconsin simply had no answer for Chase Young on third downs, Jonathan Taylor couldn’t get anything going against an Ohio State team totally keyed in on him, and the Badgers found similar issues to the Buckeyes with respect to completing passes in garbage football weather conditions. Were it not for Tuf Borland totally blowing a special teams blocking assignment and Shaun Wade getting turned around on a pass that initially appeared under-thrown, the Badgers would have left Columbus soaked and scoreless.
Jack Coan is coming off arguably his best passing performance of the season against Minnesota — 15/22 for 280 yards and two touchdowns — but did so in the face of a fairly unimpressive Golden Gopher pass rush that failed to sack him even once. Even with the blessing of an indoor environment, it’d be pure overly-optimistic speculation at best to suggest there’s enough untapped talent in Wisconsin’s receiving corps to give Ohio State’s secondary problems in time for Coan to avoid getting sacked by the Buckeyes’ relentless defensive line.
Michigan did give Ohio State some problems through the air last weekend, but the Buckeyes were also down a vital component of their cornerback rotation in Shaun Wade, and the Wolverines held Chase Young at every available opportunity. That’s not petty rivalry criticism; Michigan dared the refs to throw the flag on them and they simply never did:
While Wisconsin is unlikely to get the same treatment, they’ll still have to make adjustments to account for Young on third downs in the form of double teams and chips from the backfield. Still, Ohio State has more than enough talent up front to take advantage of their opponent’s need to try to neutralize Young, and that combined with a stout secondary should be more than enough to hold the Badgers’ passing offense in check for the second time.
That leaves Jonathan Taylor, and while Wisconsin’s offensive identity still fully flows through their historically-great running back, his games against Ohio State have not been impressive. Taylor has had 35 career carries against the Buckeyes go for only 93 yards, which averages out to ~2.66 yards per carry, less than half his career average of 6.7 ypc. Against a Buckeye defensive line that boasts top 25 ratings in all six of Football Outsiders’ run defense efficiency statistics, including four rankings inside the top four, that doesn’t figure to change.
Really, the only difference I see in the Big Ten Championship from the previous meeting between these two teams is the extra blocking attention Young will receive. The Badgers simply don’t have a dynamic enough offense to threaten a Buckeye team that will have a much easier time scoring points on the other side of the ball, and that means this game could get out of hand quickly if Ohio State finds themselves scoring early and often. Even if Wisconsin takes an early lead, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to play a ball-control style of offense against a team they haven’t proven they can run the football against despite Taylor’s brilliance.
The Bottom Line (Again)
Wisconsin checks in at 10th overall on Bill Connelly’s SP+ Rankings for conference championship week, while Ohio State still remain in the top spot. Shockingly, the Badgers actually claim a higher offensive SP+ rating (11th) than their defense does (14th), but it’d still be hard to argue against the talent gap in this contest being wider between their offense and Ohio State’s defense than vice versa.
Where Chase Young’s performance will likely regress, Justin Fields should pick up the slack on the other side of the ball. It’s going to be much easier to see the field in an indoor environment shielded from any potential Midwestern flash-hurricanes, and the Buckeyes receiving corps as a whole figures to be much more involved than they were the last time these teams played at the end of October. Ohio State won’t abandon the run entirely, and Dobbins will likely cement himself as the unquestioned best current running back in college football after this game, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect another 220+ scrimmage yards on just 23 touches given the film the Badgers have on him.
Otherwise, the Buckeye defense shouldn’t look much different from what fans saw at the end of October. DaVon Hamilton should continue his dominant interior play, Baron Browning will have another great game that makes everyone question why he hasn’t already surpassed Borland in the linebacker rotation, and Ohio State’s secondary should remain in shutdown mode opposite a group of Wisconsin receivers that fail to inspire much fear. I’m not saying a 59-0 shutout is in the cards such as the first time these two teams met in a Big Ten Championship game, but I am saying it’s much more likely that the Buckeyes get a shutout in this one than drop 59 points on the Badgers’ still stout defense.
Beating the same team twice in a season is never easy for any team, but this version of the Ohio State Buckeyes is built to overcome any challenge in their path. Look for Ryan Day to lead this program to the Big Ten’s first outright three-peat in the history of the conference.