After the opening four weeks of the season, the #3 Ohio State Buckeyes (4-0) faces their first major challenge of the season against the #23 Wisconsin Badgers (3-1) for a prime time contest.
The Buckeyes navigated their way through a relatively easy non-conference schedule to keep their 16-game winning streak alive.
The Badgers slipped up against Arizona State on a late mistake, but rebounded with a Big Ten-opening win over Purdue last week.
This Leaders division clash could go a long way to deciding who earns a birth in the Big Ten Title game, as the winner would have to lose two more conference games to open the path for the loser.
When Wisconsin Has The Ball
Despite the loss of their head coach, Wisconsin’s offense remains very similar to how it was under Brett Bielema.
The Badgers’ offense still lives and dies with their running game. Fortunately for them, they have two proven talents at running back and one freshman who appears to be in a similar mold.
Senior James White is the NCAA’s active career rushing leader with 3,013 yards. On the season he has 442 yards and three touchdowns.
Melvin Gordon is Wisconsin’s leading rusher on the season with 624 yards and seven touchdowns. The redshirt sophomore is used frequently in the jet sweep in the Badgers’ offense, but has seen more time in a traditional running back set this season.
These two backs owe much of their success to Wisconsin’s offensive line. This unit averages over 6’6” and 321 pounds and all have been in the program for at least three years.
This is unlike any line the Buckeyes’ defense has seen this year and they will look to get a good push and allow the backs to get to the second level.
Ohio State’s defensive line is smaller, but should be able to use their athletic ability against the mammoth-sized Badgers.
The pressure the defensive line gets will be important, but Wisconsin is almost always able to move the ball on the ground. When they do get through the defensive line, the linebacking corps for Ohio State must be ready.
Ryan Shazier has experience against the Badgers so the questions will lie with Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry. This game will provide a chance for both of these players – Grant in particular – to cement their spot as Buckeye linebackers and they will be a key to the game.
Wisconsin’s passing game generally comes from play action. They look to get their running game established and then fake the run to move the ball downfield.
Jared Abbrederis is easily the Badgers’ most talented receiver. The senior has more than two times more receptions than anyone else on the team and over three times the receiving yards.
Bradley Roby will be the player in charge of keeping Abbrederis in check more often than not. In the one game the All American was tested this season, the California game, he was exposed. He cannot afford to let Wisconsin’s passing game get going on the outside.
The Badgers’ tight ends are mostly blockers in the run game, but they will go to them if linebackers or safeties bite on the play fake.
Jacob Pedersen is Wisconsin’s go-to tight end, but Ohio State will have to keep an eye on all two or three they will line up in case of the play action.
This responsibility will partially fall to the linebackers, but also the senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. Last year Pedersen had six receptions for 66 yards and one touchdown against the Buckeyes and they do not want a repeat performance.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
Ohio State is not going to change what they do on offense to battle the Badgers, but they will look to run with them.
We will see the combination of Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde in a full game for the first time this season and it will be interesting to see how the coaching staff choses to use each of them.
Hyde’s return, after just five carries against Florida A&M, will give the Buckeyes the power running game to compliment Hall’s speed and shiftiness. This will allow them to get more up the middle against a bigger defense than they have faced this year.
Wisconsin has played both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense this year. Ohio State’s spread formations may mean that the Badgers use three defensive lineman more often than not, opening the room for the offensive line to create holes.
Both of these lines boast veterans, so it will be a battle of skill in the trenches.
Regardless of their formation, the defensive line will be led by senior nose guard Beau Allen, who will look to stop anything up the middle.
Linebacker Chris Borland is the leader of the defense for Wisconsin. He is an All-Conference linebacker who could be a thorn in the side of the Buckeyes all night.
Meyer essentially put to rest the question of who will start at quarterback for Ohio State this week. After missing almost all of the last three games, Meyer has said that Braxton Miller is close to 100% and will probably start.
The question then becomes if Miller will have rust to shake off and how quickly he can do it. Because he has only played one game – and was limited in that game – no one has seen Miller’s development that was talked about all offseason.
If there is a game for Miller to showcase that he is fully healthy and the same Heisman front-runner he was expected to be, this is the game to do it in front of a national audience.
The offensive plan this year was predicated on Miller being able to run and throw and they will likely need him to do both against the Badgers.
The offensive weapons for Ohio State should give them an advantage. They have shown they trust any receiver on the field to catch the ball, giving Wisconsin a lot to think about in preparation.
The young Badgers’ secondary will be tested this week with what the Buckeyes have to offer. Whoever is on the field at quarterback should have a plethora of options in which to spread the ball.
OSU will look to take advantage of mismatches of veterans on young players and that could make or break the game either way.
How It Will End Up
This is one of those games that is always hard to predict. The Buckeyes have done well in this series, but a lot of the games have been close.
One advantage for Ohio State is that this is a night game at the Horseshoe and the coaches and players are already excited for an “electric” atmosphere.
The running game will be crucial for both teams, as they both rely on that to be successful.
The difference is, if the Buckeyes’ run game isn’t producing the way they would like, they can go to their other options to move the ball, while the Badgers may have issues moving the ball through the air without the run.
If the Scarlet and Gray can get out to a good start, as they have in every game this year, it would be tough to see Wisconsin keeping up.
Ohio State 38 Wisconsin 17