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Bold Prediction: Wisconsin will present the toughest challenge on Ohio State’s schedule

Forget Notre Dame and Michigan. With a strong defense and good running game: the Badgers are just the kind of team that the Buckeyes struggle with.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Ohio State at Rutgers
Tyleik William and the Buckeye defensive line will have their hands full against the Badgers.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As we look up and down the 2022 Ohio State schedule, it’s pretty easy to identify games that might spell trouble and other games that very likely will be easy victories. In the former category, we have, of course, Notre Dame. And then, too, the usual suspects in the Big Ten East: Michigan State, Penn State, and TTUN. And then there are a couple of teams from the West – Iowa and Wisconsin.

Since this is LGHL’s week of “Bold Predictions,” here’s mine: Wisconsin will be the toughest game of the season. I’m not saying that the Buckeyes will lose to the Badgers (although they could), but the line play of Wisconsin will be trouble.

Series records

When we examine the Ohio State vs. Wisconsin series, we see the typical lopsided Buckeye dominance over a Big Ten opponent. The series record stands at 61-18-5 in the Bucks’ favor. The last Wisconsin win came in 2010; The Buckeyes are riding an eight-game winning streak, three of those wins coming in conference championship games. On the other side, the Badgers’ longest win streak against the Buckeyes is three – 1913, 1914, 1915 – the first three times that the teams met on the football field. Over a hundred years ago. OSU enjoyed a 21-game streak in the series from 1960 to 1980. Dominance.

But the Badgers, as we remember, can be pesky. Recall the 2019 B1G Championship game. The unbeaten Bucks had handled Wisconsin easily in the regular season matchup, 38-7. But in Indianapolis, the Badgers surprised Ohio State (and their fans) by taking a 21-7 lead into the halftime locker room. The Buckeyes recovered with 27 unanswered second-half points to win 34-21, but it looked rocky there for a while. That game was the last time that the two teams played.

Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022

There’s no way that the Buckeyes will overlook Wisconsin. It’s the first conference game of the 2022 season, and it comes between two games that should be wins – Toledo and Rutgers. But when I look at Wisconsin, I see bad news, then some good news, and finally more bad news.

The Wisconsin defense is bad news. All last year every college football follower marveled at the Georgia defense. The strong defensive line and the linebackers that were too big, too quick for other teams to handle. Even Alabama found that out in the end. Giving up a miserly 269 yards a game, however, ranked the Bulldogs only second in overall defense, way behind Wisconsin’s 239 a game.

In yards per play, UGA was No. 1, at 4.16, but the Badgers were right behind, barely behind, at 4.17. The Wisconsin rushing defense was No. 1 (with 2.12 yards per carry), the scoring defense was No. 4, passing yards allowed was No. 4, third-down conversion percentage No. 3 (28.7%). Get the picture? The 2021 Badger defense was good — really good.

So, what’s the good news? Most of those defensive studs are gone. In fact, four of the Badgers’ top five tackling leaders have moved on. I’m glad that Ohio State doesn’t have to face Leo Chenal, who last year recorded 115 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, and eight sacks. He’s with the Chiefs now. Jack Sanborn, Noah Burks, and Scott Nelson have also departed, and they played a lot of snaps in 2021. Outside linebacker Nick Herbig returns, though, and he’s on most preseason All-Big Ten teams, and on a lot of All-American teams. Last year he had 61 tackles, 14.5 TFL, and nine sacks. A handful.

So, there will be new guys in a lot of defensive positions. Of the 22 starters on both sides of the ball last season, only eight are back for the Badgers in 2022. But head coach Paul Chryst and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will have the defense ready for the Buckeyes. That’s for sure. It will be a defense geared toward shutting down the run and harassing the passer. And it will be challenging for the OSU offensive line.

More bad news on the other side of the ball. Most Buckeye fans regard TreVeyon Henderson as the best running back in the Big Ten, maybe the best in the nation. If there’s anybody around who is good enough to contest that notion, it’s Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen. Badger quarterback Graham Mertz doesn’t worry me, but Allen’s another matter.

Wisconsin likes to run. They always have a powerful offensive line and good runners. Allen is one of their best. Last year, Allen gained 1,268 yards on 186 carries – good enough for a very impressive 6.8 yards per carry. Allen’s backup, Chez Mellusi, gained over 800 yards himself, and he’s back also for 2022. The point is that Wisconsin will have a potent running attack, and OSU had trouble last year against good running teams. The Badgers will provide a key test to see if that problem has been solved.

If the Bucks can contain Allen and force Mertz to pass, things will be easier. Mertz is a decent, not great, quarterback with some accuracy issues. Additionally, he loses his top three receivers from last year – TE Jake Ferguson (who led the team with 46 receptions), and wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Mertz will have a few games to break in his new receivers, but I’m guessing that they’ll have real difficulties against the Buckeye secondary.

Bottom line

Because of the kind of team that Wisconsin is, they’ll be the toughest on the Buckeye schedule. They’ll want to run the ball and control the clock, and they’re good at it, ranking No. 8 in the nation last year in time of possession. They were also No. 8 in interceptions last year. C.J. Stroud is a very difficult passer to pick off, but the Badgers will want to win the turnover battle and also have fewer penalties. They won’t beat themselves. Contrarily, the Buckeyes will need to stop the Wisconsin running game, get the Badgers off the field on third-down, and protect Stroud against the pass rush.

The game may well come down to the quality of line play on both sides of the ball. It often does, of course. But Ohio State so frequently overwhelms teams with the sheer number of points that they put up that we focus our attention away from the lines. I don’t think that the Buckeyes will blow Wisconsin away. Look for a close game, and a lower-scoring game than we are accustomed to. The lead will change hands, and I hope that it ends in OSU’s favor.

Prediction: Ohio State 28, Wisconsin 24.