The No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0) are welcoming the unranked Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) to Ohio Stadium to open Big Ten play Saturday. The visitors from America’s Dairyland may have stumbled early on in the non-conference, but the Badgers still bring a sharp attack and pungent defense, the likes of which the Buckeyes haven’t seen since they faced off against Notre Dame.
Ohio State, meanwhile, shredded, grilled, fried, burned, cubed, melted and toasted the Toledo Rockets in every aspect of their 77-21 win last week, and will be looking for new and exciting ways to beat the cheese course coming to town Saturday.
You better brie-lieve this will be one for the books. Now set your mind at cheese. Let’s dive in.
Ohio State is 61-18-5 all-time against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have won the last eight over the Badgers dating back to 2010. The most famous of those meetings, of course, was that time in 2014 when Ohio State, led by backup quarterback Cardale Jones, trounced the Badgers 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
However, those records don’t tell the whole story. While Ohio State is clearly owning the win/loss column, Wisconsin is no pushover. Two of the last four matchups have been decided by one score, and the most recent game in 2019 was a 34-21 win in the Big Ten Championship.
Sweet dreams are made of cheese
Ohio State will be playing its second-straight night game and third of the season (reminder: this is just the fourth game this fall) as part of its five-game homestand at Ohio Stadium to start the season. The Buckeyes are 20-5 in night games at Ohio Stadium, including two wins over Notre Dame and Toledo already in 2022.
Saturday night will also be a blackout game at the Horseshoe (don’t forget to wear black if you’re attending the game!) and will feature all-black alternate uniforms. Because what better way to ring in the 110th season of Big Ten play than with themed fanfare?
blackout activated ✔️ pic.twitter.com/WIZuSEjUCr— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) September 20, 2022
The cheese whiz in charge
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst is in his eighth season with the Badgers and, as you might have been able to calculate, has never beaten the Buckeyes. However, he has amassed a 67-24-overall record, including a 43-16 mark in conference play, and has put together four 10+-win seasons during his tenure in Madison. He’s also won the Big Ten West thrice in seven seasons, though he could never quite win the Big Ten Championship (again, Ohio State).
He is, however, winning his other high-profile games: Chryst is 6-1 in bowl games and 5-2 against rival Minnesota for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Junior quarterback Graham Mertz is a better cheddar than we’ve seen at quarterback for Wisconsin in a while. In his third season as a starter, Mertz is the anchor of a much more balanced offense than we usually get from the Badgers. He’s thrown for 697 yards, six touchdowns and two picks this season.
At this point, Mertz is a veteran (some might say an aged cheddar) with better decision making than he had, say, in 2021 when he threw 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Moreover, Mertz brings downfield passing that feels very un-Wisconsin, including four touchdowns of 20 yards or more. His favorite targets have been junior Chimere Dike and freshman Skyler Bell (Babybel, if we’re keeping on theme).
Speaking of that balanced attack, the Badgers are (still) who we thought they were, and they once again bring a prominent run game with a powerful back behind a stout offensive line.
FTR that running back’s name is Braelon Allen. The sophomore back from Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, (Fondue-lock, for our purposes) entered the season with high expectations and has been meeting them early on. A preseason All-American, Allen has been averaging nearly 111 rushing yards per game (13th in the FBS) and 6.6 yards per carry (21st in the FBS). He’s also already had five touchdowns on the young season. Once again, balance is a theme here.
Ohio State is allowing just 84 yards on the ground per game, but Allen will be the best running back the defense has encountered all season and the first real test for the seemingly much-improved squad.
A muenster at linebacker
Junior linebacker Nick Herbig leads a defense that looks to remain elite after losing eight starters from last year’s squad. He’s doing a great job of it so far: He already has four sacks on the short season. He’s ahead of pace from last season when he had a team-high nine sacks.
He’s been outstanding in run coverage and, obviously, getting to the quarterback, though the weakest area of his game is his pass defense. Then again, what linebackers can really cover the likes of Ohio State’s backs and tight ends?
Regardless, Herbig will pose the biggest test to Ohio State’s offensive line, which has allowed only two sacks all season.
A grate defense
Herbig isn’t doing it all alone. Altogether, the Badgers are one of four teams in the Big Ten allowing under 10 points per game. Calling the plays for the Wisconsin defense is Jim Leonhard, the real curd nerd, who himself went 3-1 against Ohio State as a player at Wisconsin in the early 2000s.
While pass defense might not be Herbig’s strength, there are plenty of other Badgers to make up for it. Wisconsin is second in the FBS in picks, hauling in seven already this season, including one returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Even more impressive from a team perspective, those picks came from seven different players—all of whom will be gunning to take one from C.J. Stroud for the first time this season.
Ohio State is third in the nation and second in the Big Ten in converting on third down with a 62% success rate. Against Toledo, the Buckeyes were 11-for-13 on the measure (85%). As we’ve seen from the other side, an offense that converts these critical downs is like a gut punch for defenses that simply cannot get off the field. The Buckeyes will be going up against their toughest opponent on that metric yet, however. Wisconsin allows conversions on just 24% of opponent attempts.
Flipping the field, Wisconsin is converting a very respectable 47% on its own third downs, while Ohio State has been stingy itself on defense, giving up just 26% of opponent attempts. This area has been a major improvement through three games for Jim Knowles’ defense. Last year, by comparison, Ohio State had given up 54% of opponent third-down attempts through three games.
Wisconsin is averaging nearly seven penalties per game for 69 yards. That yardage marker is 102nd in the NCAA. However, many of those penalties occurred in the Badgers’ Week 2 loss to Washington State. In that game, Wisconsin had 11 penalties for 106 yards—penalties that certainly played a part in the narrow, 17-14 defeat.
For Wisconsin, it won’t help to be in a blackout environment, under the lights and on the road when it comes to curbing penalties. It’s definitely an area where Ohio State should have an advantage in a friendly environment.
A meat head in a land of cheese heads
Senior punter Andy Vujnovich, who has started for the past two seasons for Wisconsin, has downed 4-of-8 punts inside the 20-yard line and is averaging nearly 47 yards per attempt. The Badgers, with Vujnovich, are 16th in the FBS in net punting, averaging more than 43 yards per punt as a team.
However, Vujnovich is more famous for his antics in the weight room, including Turkish get-ups a la Aiden Hutchinson.
Don't mess with Wisconsin's punter pic.twitter.com/6oaoca9LyT— NFL Stock Exchange (@PFF_NFLSE) August 19, 2022
Of course, those workouts might not be what Vujnovich should be focusing on, as Ohio State’s Jesse Mirco and Ohio State have fared marginally better in punting than Wisconsin. Mirco is averaging just under 44 yards per punt but has downed 7-of-11 punts inside the 20. Moreover, the Buckeyes’ special teams are 10th nationally in net punting — though they’re faring less than a yard better than Wisconsin per punt.
In a game where the margin for error is smaller, field position becomes even more critical. We’ll see which punter comes out on top.
Neither Ohio State nor Wisconsin has been spectacular when it’s come to kicking this season. Already, Wisconsin has missed two field goals on the short season, and last year’s reliable Noah Ruggles missed one field goal against Notre Dame. He’s only attempted one other on the season.
While Ruggles hasn’t needed to be called on much thus far, his services will almost assuredly be required in conference play. We saw what he is capable of last season, so one missed field goal early is not a cause for panic, especially since he’s made all 20 of his extra-point attempts.
Wisconsin, however, has already had to switch kickers. After starting kicker Vito Calvaruso got hurt, Nate Van Zelst stepped up against New Mexico State last week. The freshman made his only field goal attempt from 27 yards and made all nine of his extra points.
A very gouda offense
If there were a cheese called “greata,” we would have used that here, because Ohio State’s offense is truly elite, and has been for the better part of two seasons with Stroud at the helm. Statistically, the Buckeyes aren’t tops in the Big Ten in most categories given limited production against Notre Dame (that’s what we get for scheduling tough out-of-conference games, Michigan), but the numbers are still impressive:
- 565 yards per game (No. 1 in the FBS)
- 48 points per game (No. 10 in the FBS)
- 100% red zone scores (tied No. 1 in the FBS), 92% touchdowns
CJ Stroud is shredding defenses
Leading the way for that offensive production, Ohio State’s starting quarterback and big cheese leads the nation in passing touchdowns with 11 thus far this season. As mentioned, he also has no picks on the season (knock on wood) and has been making a strong case for why he was the preseason Heisman favorite. Against Toledo, Stroud had as many incompletions as he did touchdown passes (five) and actually managed nine (!) rushing yards on the night.
Stroud needs just 59 yards to break the 1,000-yard mark on the season. He needs only 21 to overtake the late Dwayne Haskins for the No. 10 spot in all-time career passing yards at Ohio State.
As the Buckeyes enter conference play, Stroud also has the advantage of all his wide receiver targets being at full strength.
Wide receivers looking sharp
After starting the season with two leading receivers out due to injury, Brian Hartline’s unit is almost too deep. Heck, Jaxon Smith-Njigba didn’t even catch a touchdown last week! (He did finish with four catches for 36 yards.)
Yes, there is an embarrassment of riches at receiver, especially with Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming back in the rotation. Neither seemed to miss a beat in their performances against Toledo, with both working into the offense and finding a rhythm with Stroud ahead of Big Ten play.
Last week, Ohio State had three receivers—Emeka Egbuka, Jayden Ballard and Marvin Harrison Jr.—go over the century mark in receiving yards. Harrison in particular has been a major part of the offense throughout the season, and his five touchdowns through the air rank second nationally.
The Buckeyes are also breaking somewhat from recent tradition and utilizing their tight ends. Cade Stover is third on the team with eight catches for 137 yards on the season.
Whey-ing options at running back
When TreVeyon Henderson left the game with an apparent foot injury early on against Toledo, the Buckeyes showed what “next man up” truly means—because five different players ended up scoring a touchdown on the ground.
Granted, one of those players was wide receiver Emeka Egbuka and another tight end Mitch Rossi, but nonetheless, fans heard the names Dallan Hayden and TC Caffrey, both freshman backs seeing their first significant playing time and scoring their first collegiate touchdowns Saturday. Hayden actually ended up leading the Buckeyes in rushing last week with 108 yards on 17 carries. Miyan Williams, a familiar face, had 10 carries for 77 yards.
While it’s nice to have that stable of backs ready to go, the Buckeyes do expect Henderson, who is averaging 6.8-yards per carry this season, to be back for Wisconsin.
It also helps that the running backs have an offensive line that opens up holes like Swiss cheese.
Taking a slice out of the offense
On the other side of the ball, after getting grilled last season, different pieces of the defense have stepped up in 2022. Most notably, senior linebacker Tommy Eichenberg has been a breath of fresh air to a unit that has struggled in recent memory. Already, Eichenberg has accrued a team-high 19 tackles and two sacks. Given Wisconsin’s affinity for running the ball, Eichenberg’s play will be critical in containing Allen.
Another bright spot early this season, defensive tackle Mike Hall Jr. leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss with five. He has also recorded two sacks, including a critical one late against Notre Dame to help seal Ohio State’s win. Those stats came in just two games, as Hall sat out against Toledo as a precaution.
This matchup is an interesting one, because clearly Ohio State is the best team Wisconsin has faced, and Wisconsin is likely the best team Ohio State has faced (barring Notre Dame). While Wisconsin’s defense is statistically sound and the Badgers have notable playmakers, they haven’t seen the likes of the Ohio State offense this season—not even close. Similarly, how will Ohio State’s revitalized defense fare against a legitimate rushing attack and a competent, veteran quarterback?
Wisconsin has thrived in the past in short games with limited possessions (hello, running backs). That means a closer game and a lower margin for error for both sides, which might actually adversely impact Wisconsin more than Ohio State. Early on, it would seem that areas that would prove to be game changers in close matchups are advantages to Ohio State, including penalties and field goals.
When it comes to comparing matchups, the Wisconsin defense and the Ohio State offense remain murky. Wisconsin is balanced and Braelon Allen is good, but so is Ohio State’s front seven. Both will get their first real test against one another.
Of course, folks will be tuning in for the flipside: Ohio State’s explosive offense, arguably the best in the nation, against Wisconsin’s stingy defense. Something’s got to give in this matchup of All-Americans on both sides of the ball.
When it comes down to it, though, Ohio State, which is favored by 19 against the Badgers, has proven scoring ability even against good defenses dating back to last season. While their points may be more limited, Ohio State should be able to put Wisconsin away.
Plus, in a blackout Horseshoe, it’s Ohio State’s turf. It’s nacho house, Wisconsin.