Ultimately, regardless of the rest of the Wisconsin's offense, Pete Werner sees the result of Saturday's matchup coming down to one player.
The Badgers running back who has 5,128 career rushing yards and 44 career rushing touchdowns on an average of 6.7 yards per carry midway through his junior season.
“We stop him, we’re going to win the game,” he said on Wednesday evening.
But if Taylor finds some sort of rhythm? That might spell trouble for Ohio State, especially since it would give Wisconsin a chance to whip out its play-action pass repertoire, which both Werner and Malik Harrison agreed is the best the Buckeyes have faced this season.
“Wisconsin, they're one of the best at play action,” Werner said. “They'll get us a few times, but it's how we bounce back and go from there.”
With the Badgers being such a run-heavy team – they're 10th in the country with 46.1 rushes per games – it's no secret that Ohio State's linebackers will key on stopping Taylor. They'll fly downhill “instinctively,” as Harrison said on Wednesday.
But they're also wary about keying too much on the run.
“You've got to be very disciplined,” Mattison said. “When a running back has 2,000 yards, your first thought might be, 'Boy, you've got to load up, and we really have to do this and we have to do that.' Well, any time you do that, you take away from one part, you're going to be open to the next. It goes back to what I mentioned earlier. They're a very, very good coaching staff. They see that.”
Jack Coan, Wisconsin's quarterback, isn't the focus of his team's offense, but he has found a way to run it with efficiency.
Through seven games, he has thrown for 1,383 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 76 percent of his passes, the second-best mark in the country behind only Joe Burrow. His top target is Quintez Cephus, a junior wideout with 24 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns, but the Buckeyes would be wise not to overlook Jake Ferguson, a tight end tied for the second-most receptions on the team with 20 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns.
“Maybe he doesn't use his feet as well as other quarterbacks we've seen, but he does have a good arm on him, and we'll get to see that,” Werner said. “Wisconsin's a team, they use their tight ends a lot. They try to get you out of space. He makes some throws that maybe look like they're not that tough just because it's a tough offense, so they're getting their guys wide open. But he is a good quarterback, and we've seen him make really good plays and we've studied that.”
Been There Before
Justin Fields isn’t completely innocent. Having followed college football long enough, he has certainly seen an upset or two.
So, when asked on Wednesday about Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois last weekend, he knew what to say.
“It's not that surprising. We see upsets all the time,” Fields said. “That just shows you that you can't take any team lightly.”
There’s a difference between Fields and some of his teammates, though. Fields said they see upsets happen. But plenty of the players blocking for him and those catching balls from him have lived that type of upset.
The upperclassmen – along with Ryan Day – haven’t been shy about discussing the impact the losses to Iowa and Purdue have had on this program this year, and K.J. Hill brought them up once again on Wednesday.
“On the other side of it, like us, you already know how they're feeling, so we just know, the veteran guys know how that was when we lost to Iowa and Purdue and that week of practice,” Hill said. “So we know how we have to take practice and have the young guys follow us.”
On one hand, a shocking loss to a four-touchdown underdog might prove that Wisconsin actually isn’t as dangerous as its No. 6 ranking made it seem. However, as Hill sees it, the unexpected and embarrassing defeat could spark the Badgers to put it all together.
“They're looking at everything that they let loose,” Hill said. “They tighten everything back up, just the little things they probably let slip. Coming after practice harder, being early to practice, just the little things. Stretching a little more. Watching more film.”
He, along with every other captain on this team, would know.
Why Not Much Brendon White?
Without Baron Browning, Ohio State had an opening. An opening that could have been filled by Brendon White. But it wasn't.
In a few subpackages against Northwestern, specifically in passing situations, the Buckeyes moved Werner to middle linebacker to play beside Harrison as one of the two inside linebackers and brought a fifth defensive back off the bench. Given the implementation of White as the Bullet during the offseason, this seemed like a role White would fill. Instead, three other players – Josh Proctor, Jahsen Wint and Amir Riep – entered the game in those spots.
Naturally, Greg Mattison got asked on Wednesday why they played those roles instead of White.
“Well again, everybody keeps bringing...” Mattison said, his words trailing off for a moment. “Jahsen Wint played three plays. Brendon White played 17 or 18. It's the packages. And, therefore, you see when Brendon went in, he had a very good game. He did some very good things. And so did J-Wint. It's packages. It's different packages that guys who worked extremely hard have the opportunity to play in.”
Per the Eleven Warriors unofficial snap counts, Mattison's comments about playing time are backed up.
- White: 16 snaps
- Wint: four snaps
- Riep: 16 snaps
- Proctor: three snaps
It's true that White played as many snaps as any of them, and he also graded out as a champion. But it's also true that White entered the game late and played only three snaps before the fourth quarter. Antwuan Jackson played more snaps than Robert Landers and Davon Hamilton, but that doesn't mean he has a significant role with the first-team defense. Context matters.
To be clear, based on what has happened in the first seven games, the Buckeyes evidently don't need Brendon White on the field. Mattison is coaching a defense that has allowed the second-fewest points per game and the second-fewest yards per play in the nation, giving him minimal motivation to reconsider the personnel.
But the question about White's status remains one that sometimes gets asked because this isn't just some random player.
White was both the defensive MVP at the Rose Bowl in Urban Meyer's last game as Ohio State's coach. Midway through last season, he essentially saved the defense by unexpectedly filling the second safety spot beside Jordan Fuller. He was billed in the offseason as the player in line to start at the newly created hybrid "Bullet" position this season.
At this point, based on the first seven games, it's difficult to imagine White having a meaningful role on this year's defense.
“Just try to wreck the line of scrimmage”
Name a feat of strength – a lift in the weight room or anything else – and it's a fair guess that Tommy Togiai can do it easier than anybody else on Ohio State's roster. Take the bench press, for example. During the summer, he put up 36 reps of 225 pounds before the strength and conditioning coaches stopped him because they deemed it unnecessary to push it any further.
He's pretty strong then, huh?
“That's what they say,” Togiai said on Tuesday through a smile.
That strength, along with improved technique, has made him a fixture at nose tackle through the first seven games. He's rotating at a position with two experienced fifth-year seniors – Hamilton and Landers – but has actually played slightly more snaps than either veteran.
Togiai had arguably the best game of his career last week against Northwestern, grading out as a champion for the first time this season, and will be counted on for a specific role as told to him by defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
“I think, so far, the biggest thing he wanted me to do is just try to wreck the line of scrimmage and try to knock the line of scrimmage back,” Togiai said. “That's been the biggest thing for me is just trying to create disruptions in the backfield and try to do the best I can.”
Against a Taylor-led rushing attack, he view his role as key against the Badgers.
“They're a really good O-line and (have) a strong, physical back,” Togiai said. “So I think this game will come down to the front seven: linebackers and D-line.”