For the first time since 1994, Ohio State (4-3, 1-2) will be unranked when they face #15 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1). The Buckeyes, who own a 53-17-5 advantage all-time against the Badgers, won that game 24-3.
Since last season was vacated by Ohio State, the Buckeyes are technically looking for their fourth straight win over Wisconsin. The Badgers don't see it that way.
Ohio State is 28-7-3 at home against Wisconsin all-time. This is also the Homecoming game for the Buckeyes, who are 64-19-5 on Homecoming.
This will be the third-consecutive week that Ohio State will be playing the 15th-ranked team in the nation. They are 1-1 in their previous two meetings this season.
This is just the third time since 1974 that Wisconsin comes to Columbus as a ranked opponent.
Counting the vacated 2010 game, this series has been split evenly 5-5 over the last ten meetings.
When Wisconsin Has The Ball
The Badgers are scoring 47.4 points per game, which leads the Big Ten and is fifth in the nation. Their 31 points in last week's 37-31 loss to Michigan State was their low-point outing of the season.
This will be the best running game that the Buckeyes will face this season, and that includes the Miami Hurricanes, who rushed for 240 yards against them, and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who rushed for 232 yards.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, this will also be the best passing game they will face as well. Quarterback Russell Wilson is second in the nation in passing efficiency (204.91), and has thrown for 1,780 yards and 16 touchdowns, with just three interceptions.
Wilson is completing 73.2% of his passes and is as accurate down the field as he is in the short passing game.
The key to Wisconsin's success through the air is the play-action, but it's not the sole reason that the Badgers are successful. Wilson can drop back and throw any pass required of him. He will keep all eleven defenders busy.
Receivers Jared Abbrederis (30-482-2) and Nick Toon (27-505-6) are the top two targets on the team, and they receive about the same amount of attention from Wilson. This also means that they will need to receive the same amount of attention from the Ohio State cornerbacks.
Redshirt freshman corner Bradley Roby has emerged as one of the team's best overall defenders, but both he and fellow corner Travis Howard will have to balance their coverage with their awareness of what Wilson is doing with the ball. They'll have to do it all without getting caught looking into the backfield and losing track of the receiver they were supposed to be defending.
Tight end Jacob Pedersen (19-262-6) is also a popular target for Wilson. In fact, he's tied with Nick Toon for most touchdown catches on the team.
When the Buckeyes do cover the Badger receivers, they then must concern themselves with the scrambling of Wilson. He's had at least one 20-yard carry in each of the last three games. When he finds a lane, he has the ability to get to the second level very quickly.
Even more dangerous than Wilson running with the ball, however, is when he's simply buying time looking for a receiver. Toon and Abbrederis have built a quick connection with Wilson on his scrambles, and they both are able to break free and bail their quarterback out with ease.
The bread and butter for the Badgers will always be their running game, and this team is no different. Wisconsin is eighth in the nation in rushing, averaging 252.1 yards per game on the ground.
With a massive offensive line paving the way (the lightest man on the line comes in at 315 pounds), the Badgers have two tremendous running backs to carry the load. Montee Ball is leading the nation in scoring, averaging a ridiculous 16.3 points per game. He has scored 19 touchdowns this season. For comparison's sake, the entire Ohio State offense has only scored 19 touchdowns.
Ball is leading the conference in rushing, averaging 109.7 yards per game. Russell Wilson gets most of the attention, but Ball is the guy that enables the rest of the success around him. It's his ability to gain yards that allows receivers to run free, which then makes Wilson so effective and accurate.
It's also his straight ahead style of running that makes the change of pace with last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year James White so dramatic. White's own talents don't hurt him either. He's currently eighth in the conference in rushing, averaging 65.4 yards per game on the ground.
Linebacker Storm Klein called this game “the front seven's Super Bowl”, and he's not exaggerating. As with most games, this one will be won upfront. Defensive linemen Johnathan Hankins and John Simon were everywhere against Illinois, combining for 17 tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks. A performance like that against the Badgers would likely ensure a victory for the Buckeyes.
While the defensive line will be asked to do the heavy lifting, it will be up to the Ohio State linebackers to do the cleaning up of the ball carriers. They have had some bad days this season, and if they have another one Saturday night, then they will never get off the field and Wisconsin will control the game.
The linebackers will have to play downhill and stop Ball and White from getting started. The rest of the defense will need to attack Russell Wilson and not let him get comfortable. It will take an aggressive defense to win this game, and the Buckeyes will need to take some chances to get the job done.
The Badgers' special teams had a hiccup last week giving up a blocked punt for a touchdown last week against the Spartans, but that was one of the few mistakes the special units have made this season.
Punter Brad Nortman is averaging 43.1 yards per punt, though he has only punted 18 times this season. By contrast, Ohio State punter Ben Buchanan has punted 42 times this season.
Not that the Buckeyes need to be told this based on what happened last year, but the Badgers are also dangerous in the return game. Jared Abbrederis is averaging 22.3 yards per punt return, and that includes a 60-yard touchdown. He also returns kickoffs with James White, and while neither has had a return longer than 40 yards, they are both dangerous. The Buckeyes are only allowing 16.5 yards per kickoff return and 6.9 yards per punt return, but those numbers may be hard to match on Saturday night.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
It has been said by Buckeye coaches that Braxton Miller looks like an entirely different quarterback than he did a month ago. Ohio State probably doesn't need a brand new Braxton Miller to win this game—they just need the one who played against Nebraska.
They will need Miller to be under control, yet unstifled. Yes, a turnover is the worst thing that a quarterback can do, but if he isn't allowed to take chances, then how will they ever know what he's capable of handling?
As Michigan State showed last week against the Badgers, a controlled passing attack with occasional downfield attacks can have success. That's something that the Buckeyes are absolutely capable of, as long as the weather doesn't get in the way.
Wisconsin has one of the best statistical defenses in the nation, but their schedule has been an embarrassment. There's no reason to think that mid-to-upper 20s is unattainable for the Buckeyes if things go perfectly. If nothing else, it gives the Ohio State defense a baseline to shoot for.
While the Spartans didn't have the best success running the ball against Wisconsin—just 109 yards on 32 carries—they did enough to keep the chains moving. The Buckeyes have a better running game than Michigan State at the moment, so there is some hope for Ohio State here.
Boom Herron returned from suspension against Illinois and rushed for 114 yards on 23 carries and never missed a beat. He will be supremely fresh this week and his vision and quickness could allow him to get the one or two extra yards that makes a third and long more manageable. He is a clock-churner as well, which never hurts.
The Buckeyes are 19-1 when Herron rushes for at least 55 yards. That one loss, however, came last year in Madison. Ohio State waited too long to establish Herron last year—don't expect that same mistake to happen this time.
The Badger defensive line has had its moments this season, but it also has its vulnerabilities. Starting defensive tackles Ethan Hemer and Patrick Butrym have combined for just 1.5 tackles for loss on the year. They do employ a rotation, however, and they get a boost from Beau Allen, who has three sacks on the season.
The defensive ends have been active. Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu have combined for 7.5 sacks, but there is no J.J. Watt on this defensive line.
The Ohio State offensive line will come into this game hearing nothing about themselves, only about the massive wall of the Wisconsin offensive line, and they will play with something to prove.
Herron will carry the ball over 20 times, and the more he carries it, the better the Buckeyes' chances become. Unfortunately, because the Ohio State coaches will want to rotate players, Herron will sit for an entire series or three in order to get Jordan Hall carries. Nothing against Jordan Hall, but Herron should never sit out an entire series. He is too valuable to the Buckeyes' success.
If Herron, Hall and Miller out-rush Ball, White and Wilson, the Buckeyes will win, and possibly by two scores, but that's a pretty tall order.
Ohio State will probably go back to the pistol look that was so successful for them against Nebraska. With Miller now another week removed from an ankle injury, he should be able to carry a heavier load in the running game. The read option could be very effective for the Buckeyes this weekend.
Ohio State doesn't have a B.J. Cunningham in their lineup just yet, so Miller will need to find somebody that he can rely on. There hasn't been a consistency in this passing game since the first half of the Nebraska game. Since then it can't even really be called a “passing game”. If Miller truly is a better looking quarterback than he was a month ago, then he becomes that much more dangerous as a runner as well.
Defenses still haven't been able to contain tight end Jake Stoneburner, or at least they haven't been able to contain him when he's been targeted. He should get quite a few looks Saturday night. He's a safe option who will be able to turn and move the chains, which will be key to pulling off this upset.
The Buckeyes also need to see something from receiver Philly Brown. He has tons of potential, and showed a little bit of it against Illinois, but he needs to show more against the Badgers. Ohio State needs playmakers in this game, and they need Brown to be one of them.
Don't expect the Wisconsin defense to just sit back and let the Buckeyes come at them. This defense will be aggressive in attacking Braxton Miller and they will try to force him into quick decisions that lead to mistakes.
Watch out for linebacker Chris Borland, who leads the team in tackles (71) and tackles for loss (10.0). He will have some major run ins with fullback Zach Boren, and Boren absolutely needs to win this battle.
If Ohio State is going to win this game, they will have to have an impact on special teams. The Buckeyes are sixth in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 27.2 yards per return. The Badgers are only allowing 19.7 yards per return, however.
The Buckeyes are also averaging 13.7 yards per punt return, and with Brad Nortman's big leg, there is a chance of outkicking his coverage and allowing a sizable return. They have only allowed three returns to this point, however.
Ben Buchanan is averaging 41.3 yards per punt, but his 17 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line is the fourth-best number in the nation. Place-kicker Drew Basil is now 8-10 on field goals this season after missing his first two of the year. He is also 19-19 on extra points.
How It Will End Up
Ohio State will be as ready as they can be for this game. They will get after Russell Wilson early on, and how he handles that pressure will determine how much more they come after him. Eventually, however, he will make plays. It's what he does. The Buckeyes need to expect it, and when it happens, they just need to move on.
The exact same can be said for Braxton Miller as well. If he can handle the pressure like he did against Nebraska, then the Badgers will have to back off a bit. If the offensive line turns in a performance like they did against Michigan State, then Kenny Guiton will want to get his arm ready, because Braxton Miller will not survive.
Boom Herron has never rushed for 100 yards against a high-quality opponent, so don't expect it to happen this week. He will rush for over 55 yards, but just like last year it won't be enough.
In the end, the Buckeyes will be in control for a good portion of the game, but they won't be able to contain this Wisconsin offense—and more specifically Russell Wilson—forever. A late score for the Badgers will be the difference.
Wisconsin 28 – Ohio State 23
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