Ohio State and Wisconsin meet for the second time this year, with the Big Ten Championship on the line on Saturday night in Indianapolis. Playing a team twice in the same season is a rarity for Ohio State. The only other time the Buckeyes have played the same team twice in a year came back in 1975 when Ohio State met UCLA in the regular season, and closed out the year by playing the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.
A lot more than the Big Ten Championship will be at stake for Ohio State on Saturday night. The Buckeyes currently sit at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings. While a loss to the Badgers would likely see Ohio State still be a part of the four-team playoff, a win over Wisconsin would make it hard for an undefeated LSU team to jump the Buckeyes for the top seed. An appearance in the College Football Playoff would be the third in school history for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes and Badgers met in late October on a rainy track in Columbus. After a scoreless first quarter, Ohio State scored at least 10 points in each of the final three quarters to secure a 38-7 victory over Wisconsin. The win by the Buckeyes was the sixth straight over the Badgers, and the 10th in the last 11 meetings between the schools. Ohio State is now 60-18-5 all-time against Wisconsin. Both teams were ranked in October’s matchup, with the victory by the Buckeyes improving their record to 13-5-2 against the Badgers when both teams are ranked.
Buckeye history in Indy
Ohio State will be trying to earn their 38th Big Ten title in school history on Saturday night. The Buckeyes and Badgers have met two other times in the Big Ten Championship Game. In 2014, Cardale Jones made the first start of his career after J.T. Barrett was injured the previous week against Michigan. Ohio State thumped Wisconsin 59-0 that night, which set the table for the Buckeyes to make the College Football Playoff. Barrett was healthy for the 2017 matchup in Indianapolis, with the Buckeyes topping the Badgers 27-21.
The Buckeyes come into this week’s game on the strength of a 56-27 destruction of Michigan last Saturday in Ann Arbor. The win by Ohio State was the second straight over the Wolverines by at least 21 points, and the eighth straight in the rivalry. Ohio State has now won 18 straight games overall, with their last loss coming last October to Purdue. Head coach Ryan Day continued the undefeated start to his coaching career with the win last week, running his record to 15-0
Dobbins is eating
The star of the win over the Wolverines on Saturday was running back J.K. Dobbins, who rushed for a career-high 211 yards and four touchdowns. The junior from Texas passed Ezekiel Elliott for second place on Ohio State’s career rushing list, and now sits at 4,113 yards rushing in his three seasons at Ohio State. Dobbins is also working his way up the Big Ten career rushing list, currently sitting in 19th place. With 66 more rushing yards, Dobbins will pass Michigan’s Tyrone Wheatley for 18th place.
The key for Ohio State on Saturday will be to get Dobbins to 100 yards rushing. The Buckeyes are a perfect 17-0 when Dobbins rushes for at least 100 yards in a game. Dobbins has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight games this year, with one of those triple digit performances coming against Wisconsin earlier this year. In the first meeting with the Badgers, Dobbins rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns.
Better than advertised
Quarterback Justin Fields continued his outstanding first season in Columbus with one of the best performances of his career against Michigan, but it didn’t come without a bit of a scare. In the third quarter, Fields took a hit to the knee he injured on the previous week on the final play against Penn State. Fields left the field for a few plays to be evaluated, but returned on the same drive and threw a 30-yard touchdown to Garrett Wilson. Even though Fields said earlier this week his knee was sore, he plans to plan on Saturday night, and will be using a bigger knee brace to give him some extra protection.
With his four touchdown passes and no interceptions last week, Fields has now thrown 37 touchdowns and just one interception this season. The sophomore quarterback also has 10 rushing touchdowns this year, giving him 47 total touchdowns this year, which ranks third in the country behind LSU’s Joe Burrow and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts. Fields is on his way to eclipsing the 54 total touchdowns Dwayne Haskins accounted for last season.
Youth and experience
Last year, freshman Chris Olave made a name for himself with two touchdown receptions against Michigan. This year saw another freshman have a career game against the Wolverines. Garrett Wilson caught three passes for a career-high 118 yards and a touchdown against Michigan. The effort by Wilson was the first 100-yard receiving game of the freshman wide receiver’s career. Wilson now has 24 receptions for 368 yards and five touchdowns this year.
While Wilson was the star of the wide receivers against Michigan, Chris Olave hauled in a couple passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. Olave now has at least one touchdown reception in five of the last six games, bringing his season total to a team-high 11 receiving touchdowns. The sophomore wide receiver had one of his best performances of the season in the first meeting with Wisconsin this year, grabbing seven passes for 93 yards and two touchdowns.
K.J. Hill might not be putting up big numbers when it comes to receiving yards, but he is inching his way closer to become the leading pass catcher in Ohio State history. Hill now has 188 career receptions, which puts him four receptions away from passing David Boston for most in school history. There’s a good chance we could see Hill hit that mark this week, as he has caught at least four passes in six games this season.
Even though the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin handily in late October, one area of concern for the Buckeyes was how poorly they protected Justin Fields. The Badgers were able to get past the Ohio State offensive line on numerous occasions. The Buckeyes gave up five sacks against Wisconsin in the first meeting, which was the most Ohio State has given up this year. In their 11 other games this season, Ohio State has given up just 21 sacks.
Expect a spirited performance from the Ohio State offensive line on Saturday night. Earlier this week each of Ohio State’s five starters on the offensive line were named to one of the three All-Big Ten teams as voted on by both the media and coaches. Guard Wyatt Davis has been playing better each week, while tackle Thayer Munford has been getting healthier after battling injury earlier in the season.
Speaking of sacks, Wisconsin will be trying to keep Chase Young from wrecking havoc in the backfield like he did in the first meeting this year. Young was a monster against the Badgers in late October, recording a career-high four sacks and forcing two fumbles. The performance against the Badgers was the cornerstone of a season that just saw Young being named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Young wasn’t available the two games after the Wisconsin game because of a suspension due to a NCAA investigation into a loan, but that didn’t stop Young from setting the Ohio State single-season sack record. Young has 16.5 sacks this year, which leads the FBS. The only team that has been able to slow Young down has been Michigan, who hasn’t allowed Young to record a sack in each of the last two years.
Ohio State’s star defensive end hasn’t been the only one to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. The Buckeyes have recorded 49 sacks this year, which puts them four sacks away from passing the 52 sacks they recorded in 2000 for most in a season in school history. Including Young, 15 Buckeyes have recorded at least one sack this season. DaVon Hamilton ranks second on Ohio State with five sacks this year.
It isn’t just the defensive linemen who are creating pressure in the backfield for Ohio State. Linebacker Malik Harrison not only has a team-leading 63 tackles this season, but he has 16 tackles for loss, which ranks second on the team behind Young. Of those 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 4.5 have been sacks.
Harrison has had a partner in crime this year at linebacker in Baron Browning. After a slow start to his Ohio State career, Browning has be reenergized by the addition of linebackers coach Al Washington to the coaching staff. Browning has nine tackles for loss and four sacks this year, which is even more impressive considering Browning has missed two games due to injury. The junior linebacker has been a force recently, tying his career-high of seven tackles in each of the last two weeks.
Picking their spots
If Wisconsin is again forced to abandon the run against Ohio State, quarterback Jack Coan will likely have a tough time finding open receivers in the Buckeye secondary. So far this season Ohio State has 15 interceptions, recording at least one in every game except against the Badgers. Jeff Okudah has a team-high three interceptions this year, while Jordan Fuller and Shaun Wade each have picked off two passes. Wade should be able to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game against Michigan due to injury.
Wisconsin’s Big Ten Championship Game history
Wisconsin will be making their sixth appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game, which is the most among teams in the conference. The Badgers haven’t had much success in Indianapolis recently, losing their last three appearances in the conference title game. The last time Wisconsin was able to leave Indianapolis with the crown came back in 2012 when they beat Nebraska 70-31.
The engine running the Badgers is undoubtedly running back Jonathan Taylor. The junior has already rushed for 1,761 yards this year, which has allowed him to join Georgia’s Herschel Walker as the only running backs in FBS history with three seasons of at least 1,700 yards rushing. With 68 more rushing yards, Taylor will become the seventh FBS running back to rush for 6,000 yards in a career, and the first to do it in three seasons.
Ohio State held Taylor to his worst performance of the season earlier this year in Columbus, with Taylor running for just 52 yards on 20 carries. Since the embarrassing performance against Ohio State, Taylor has been running angry, racking up 722 yards rushing and six touchdowns in the four games since. During that span, Taylor has rushed for over 200 yards in three of those games.
Quarterback Jack Coan isn’t going to put up huge numbers, but he will make smart decisions with the football when called upon. Coan is third amongst FBS quarterbacks with a 72.3% completion percentage. The Wisconsin quarterback has thrown 17 touchdowns this season and just four interceptions. Coan didn’t throw an interception in the first meeting with Ohio State this year, but Chase Young was able to force him into two fumbles.
If Wisconsin does go to the air, Ohio State would be wise to keep an eye on wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who leads the Badgers with 45 receptions for 720 yards and six touchdowns this year. Wisconsin also has four other receivers with at least 20 receptions this year, including Jake Ferguson, Garrett Groshek, and Danny Davis.
Controlling the action
Although Taylor gets all the headlines on the Wisconsin offense, the offensive line of the Badgers has done the dirty work. With the holes the offensive line has been able to create, Wisconsin leads the country in time of possession, with their average of 36:03 of possession per game bettering second place Utah by more than a minute. If Wisconsin wants to upset Ohio State, the Badgers will need to keep the football out of the hands of Justin Fields and the Ohio State offense.
Leaders of the defense
Wisconsin has one of the best defenses in the country, and at the heart of it are a couple of linebackers. Chris Orr and Zack Baun are studs who have created problems for every team they have faced this season. The duo has 11.5 sacks each on the year. Baun has found his way into the backfield even more than Orr, recording a team-high 18.5 tackles for loss. Orr has been a headache for opponents in other ways, recording two forced fumbles and five pass breakups.
Because of Orr and Baun, Wisconsin’s defense has rebounded after a quiet 2018. Last year the Badgers recorded just 18 sacks through 12 games, while this year they have 44 sacks, which is fifth in the country. Behind Orr and Baun in terms of sacks is Jack Sanborn, who has 4.5 sacks, as well as Matt Henningsen, who has three sacks.
Just as strong for Wisconsin has been their pass coverage. The Badgers have defensed 74 passes this year, which is second in the country. In last week’s victory over Minnesota, Wisconsin had 10 passes defensed. Caesar Williams leads the Badgers with a team-high 11 passes broken up this year. Eric Burrell has also had solid season, picking off three passes and breaking up six others. Orr, Rachad Wildgoose, Colin Wilder, and Isaiahh Loudermilk have also been able to get in passing lanes, each breaking up five passes this season.
Facing a team a second time around figures to be an advantage for the losing team of the first matchup, but there are reasons to think Ohio State could be in for another big win. On Saturday night the Buckeyes won’t have to deal with the elements like they did in late October in Columbus. Even though the Buckeyes easily defeated Wisconsin, the rain could have seen the Ohio State offense not quite play to their potential. Dry conditions inside Lucas Oil Stadium will benefit Justin Fields and company.
Another reason why it could be a long night for the Badgers is because of how well Ryan Day has shown to be at making adjustments. Often times this year the Buckeyes have put the game to rest in the second quarter of games because of how they have adapted to how teams have been playing them. Imagine how things might go with Ryan Day having a week to analyze what Wisconsin threw at them earlier in the season.
While there would be no shame in playing a tight game with Wisconsin, Ohio State is on a mission. Even though the Buckeyes are undefeated, they know they have to impress to stay at the top of the College Football Playoff rankings. The only way for the Buckeyes to keep a tight hold on the top spot is with a big win over Wisconsin. The Badgers might have around early, but expect the Buckeyes to pull away and leave little doubt with how the College Football Playoff committee will rank the Buckeyes on Sunday afternoon.