Ohio State right tackle Branden Bowen said he has had this week’s game circled on his calendar since the end of last season.
“It’s always a war with Wisconsin,” Bowen said this week. “Everyone knows Wisconsin is a tough, ram-it-down-your-threat type of offense and stop-the-run kind of defense, and we’re, I guess I would say, the exact same. So when two teams get together like that, you just know it’s going to be a battle.”
The history of both the Buckeyes and Badgers was reason enough to look forward to this week’s game entering the year. While Ohio State has won its last six straight games against Wisconsin, five of those games have been decided by seven points or less. Ohio State and Wisconsin have each won Big Ten division titles in three of the past five years.
After both teams won their first six games of the season, the implications for this year’s game between the Buckeyes and Badgers are as high as ever.
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The hype that was building for this week’s game took a hit last Saturday when Wisconsin suffered its first loss of the season in a stunning 24-23 upset by Illinois, but the Badgers still control their own destiny in the Big Ten West. They could lose that, and any hopes they have of making the College Football Playoff, with another loss to Ohio State this Saturday.
Ohio State, though, remains undefeated, and hasn’t even been tested yet this season; with a 52-3 win over Northwestern last Friday, the Buckeyes have now each of their first seven games of the year by at least 24 points. Now, they have the chance to earn their first signature win of the year if they can beat the Badgers, who are still ranked 13th in both major polls and still lead the nation in just about every major statistical category on defense.
Even though the Badgers don’t look quite as intimidating now as they would have if they had taken care of business against Illinois, Wisconsin should still provide the toughest competition that Ohio State has faced so far this year.
“They got great players on both sides of the ball, NFL players,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Last week is what it is. This is college football. So you have to bring it every week. And it's the same thing with us. We have to bring it this week. It's got to be our best game of the year. It’s going to be our biggest challenge on both sides of the ball. And we gotta prepare better than we have all year.”
Before last weekend, Wisconsin had been almost as dominant as Ohio State has been this season. The Badgers won five of their first six games by at least 21 points, including a 35-14 win over Michigan and four shutouts, including a 38-0 win over Michigan State.
In the process, Wisconsin became the first FBS team to record four shutouts in its first six games since Oklahoma in 1967.
As a result, Wisconsin still leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed per game (7.6) and both passing yards allowed per game (135.4) and rushing yards allowed per game (58.4). The Badgers are the only team in the FBS who have held opponents to less than 200 yards of offense per game and less than 3.5 yards per play, and they also lead the nation in percentage of third-down conversions allowed (16.1) and percentage of scores allowed per red zone trip (50.0).
Day said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard “does a really good job” schematically, and the Badgers have playmakers all over their defense. Edge-rushing linebacker Zack Baun, who has 30 total tackles with 11 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown this season, and inside linebacker Chris Orr, who has 38 total tackles with eight sacks and two forced fumbles, are among the Badgers’ players to watch on that side of the ball.
“They do a really good job on third down,” Day said. “They do a good job in the red zone. And they're really physical. And they got talent on the edges. So yeah, it's going to be a challenge for our guys, and we gotta answer the bell.”
Offensively, the Badgers’ star is Jonathan Taylor, who led the nation with 2,194 rushing yards and won the Doak Walker Award as college football’s best running back in 2018, and already has 957 rushing yards (third-most in the FBS) while leading the nation with 19 touchdowns scored (15 rushing, four receiving) this year.
Taylor is a strong, physical runner who was praised by several Ohio State defenders this week for his patience and ability to find holes, and he also has explosive speed in the open field, as evidenced by his stint running the 4x100-meter relay for Wisconsin’s track team this past spring. So the Buckeyes know Taylor will put them to the test, and keeping him in check will be their top priority on Saturday.
“Not many backs have the dual-threat that he has as far as his cutting ability, but at the same time he has that breakaway speed, but he’ll lower his shoulder and go through you,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Robert Landers. “So it’s one of those things where we’re going to have to play a full defense, and we got to get 11 hats to the ball.”
Wisconsin has run the ball (323 attempts) nearly twice as often as it has passed the ball (178 attempts) this season, and the Badgers haven’t made a lot of big plays through the air (only 13 passing plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks ahead of just seven other FBS teams).
Jack Coan has been efficient passing the ball, though, completing 76 percent of his passes, the second-best completion percentage among FBS starting quarterbacks.
“Obviously Taylor is the guy that gets them going, but Coan has done a really excellent job of managing that offense,” Day said. “He’s very accurate when he throws. He’s got some weapons out there.”
Because of how good the Badgers are in the running game, that opens up opportunities for them to make plays off of play-action passes – Ohio State linebackers Pete Werner and Malik Harrison described Wisconsin’s play-action passing game as the best the Buckeyes have seen yet this year – and they have some receiving playmakers who are capable of testing Ohio State’s back seven, most notably wide receiver Quintez Cephus (24 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns this season) and tight end Jake Ferguson (20 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns).
Given all of that, it will be crucial for Ohio State’s defense – which has been nearly as dominant as Wisconsin’s this year, but also hasn’t played any elite offenses – to play as fast and as disciplined as it has all season.
“All the way around, their whole offense, they play well in what they do,” Landers said of Wisconsin. “So we got to make sure we’re fundamentally sound and we play our game.”
As beatable as Wisconsin looked last Saturday by losing to a 3-4 Illinois team that was a 30.5-point underdog, the Buckeyes know they can’t put too much stock in that. The Badgers’ first six games of the year demonstrated that they are one of the best teams in the Big Ten this year, and while they might have been caught looking ahead to Ohio State last week, they should be as motivated as ever to try to steal a win from Columbus this week.
“This is going to be as hard as it gets. These guys are coming off a tough loss, they're going to be more hungry than ever coming in here,” Day said. “It's going to take everything we have to win this thing.”
“It’s always a war with Wisconsin.” – Ohio State right tackle Branden Bowen
Any concerns that the first bye week of the season would slow Ohio State’s momentum were quickly put to rest last Friday at Northwestern, where the Buckeyes scored 24 points in the second quarter – marking the sixth straight game in which they have scored at least 21 second-quarter points – to take a 31-3 lead into halftime before ultimately cruising to a 49-point win.
|87.7||2nd||PASS EFFICIENCY DEFENSE||82.3||1st|
Ohio State has dominated every opponent it has faced so far this year, and has been the most complete team in college football. The Buckeyes’ defense ranks second nationally in points allowed per game, yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play, while their offense ranks third in points scored per game and fifth in both yards per game and yards per play.
Justin Fields has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football, completing 70.7 percent of his passing attempts for 1,492 yards and 22 touchdowns with only one interception, while J.K. Dobbins has made his own case for being the Big Ten’s best running back this season, rushing for 947 yards and seven touchdowns on 134 attempts – an average of more than seven yards per carry.
The Buckeyes have scored at least 34 points and gained at least 480 yards in each of their last six games, while Ohio State’s defense has held its opponents under 300 yards in all seven games this year and to 10 points or fewer in each of the last six.
Ohio State has firmly established itself as a national championship contender and looks capable of beating any team in college football this season, and that’s why the Buckeyes are 14.5-point favorites for Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes have yet to show any substantial weaknesses this year, and although Wisconsin has also played well on both sides of the ball this year, Ohio State’s overall talent and team speed should give the home team an advantage at Ohio Stadium once again.
Wisconsin is the best team Ohio State has played all season, though – No. 18 Cincinnati is the Buckeyes’ only other opponent this year that is currently ranked in the AP Top 25 – so the scarlet and gray must go into Saturday ready to face adversity even though they have been able to dominate their first seven games.
“We prepare every week to play 60 minutes, but we know it’s going to be like that this week,” Day said. “Certainly when you play Wisconsin, you got to be ready to play 60 minutes.”
So far this season, the Buckeyes have been able to win just about any way they’ve wanted to, but this week, Day believes it will be crucial for Ohio State to execute the plan to win that his predecessor, Urban Meyer, instilled in the Buckeyes: play great defense, win the turnover battle, score in the red zone and execute in the kicking game.
“I think the bigger the game, the more the emphasis on those points, because when we've done a good job with that, things have gone well,” Day said.
One variable that could make a difference on Saturday’s game is the weather, as it is currently forecast to rain in Columbus on Saturday afternoon. Presumably, any adverse weather conditions could play into the favor of Wisconsin, given the Badgers’ run-heavy offense and ability to stop the run.
That said, Day said Thursday that while the Buckeyes have used wet balls in practice and have had their ballcarriers make adjustments to prepare for the possibility of a rainy game, he doesn’t believe the weather should have a major impact on how the game plays out.
|2017||Indianapolis||Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 21|
|2016||Madison||Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23|
|2014||Indianapolis||Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0|
|2013||Columbus||Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24|
|2012||Madison||Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14|
|2011||Columbus||Ohio State 33, Wisconsin 29|
“Nothing we can control,” Day said. “It’s all about how we handle it. They have to play in the same game we do. So we’re certainly going to embrace it, and make it the best we can.
“We’re still going to have the same game plan regardless of the weather, unless it’s just completely brutal,” Day added. “In those situations, you got to go more conservative, but if it’s just raining out, then we have our full arsenal.”
Rain or shine, Ohio State is well-equipped for Saturday’s matchup with how well it has played in every phase of the game this year.
The Buckeyes can’t afford to have a letdown or fail to execute their plan to win this week, as Wisconsin is more capable of beating them than any opponent they’ve faced yet this year, but the consistency with which Ohio State has dominated on both sides of the ball this season is reason to be confident about its chances of improving to 8-0 in front of a home crowd on Saturday.
Against the nation’s top-ranked defense and a quality offense, Wisconsin should be able to give Ohio State its most competitive game of the year to date, but that bar isn’t set all that high. If the Buckeyes can play like they have all season and are prepared to overcome any adversity that might come their way, a two-to-three score win seems well within reach.
ELEVEN WARRIORS STAFF PREDICTION: Ohio State 35, Wisconsin 17