Ohio State has only played the same team twice in the same season once since the turn of the 20th century, and that game could serve as a warning against overconfidence for this year’s Buckeyes in the coming days.
In 1975, Ohio State earned a 41-20 win in a regular-season non-conference game against UCLA but suffered a 23-10 loss to the Bruins in the Rose Bowl, which spoiled what otherwise would have been an undefeated season for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State will look to avoid the same fate when it plays its first in-season rematch in 44 years against Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
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The Buckeyes rolled to a 38-7 victory in their regular-season game against the Badgers at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 26, which is why they’re a three-score favorite to win Saturday night’s game in Indianapolis. Ohio State can’t simply be satisfied with its success in the first game, though, as it prepares for this week’s game.
“We absolutely respect these guys,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Wisconsin during the Big Ten Championship Game coaches’ teleconference on Sunday. “They’re one of the best-coached teams in America, toughest teams in America. They run the football, they’re very, very well-coached on both sides of the ball and we were in a dogfight in that game. And I thought we did a good job at that moment, but we’re both different teams at that point.
“Teams change and they take on different personalities as the season goes on, and they’re playing really, really good football. So we’ll absolutely understand that going into the game, and nothing but the utmost respect for this team. So we got to do a great job preparing, we’ve got to do everything we’ve done so far to this point in this game.”
While Ohio State ultimately defeated Wisconsin by 31 points, it was nonetheless one of the most competitive games of a dominant regular season for the Buckeyes. Ohio State scored just 10 points in the first half and led by only three points after an early third-quarter touchdown by the Badgers before the Buckeyes scored four consecutive touchdowns to turn a close battle into a blowout.
Ohio State was clearly the better team on that day, and it still is. But the Badgers remain capable of giving the Buckeyes a test, especially now that they’ve already played each other once and will be meeting on a neutral field this time.
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Wisconsin was coming off its first loss of the season, a stunning upset loss at Illinois, ahead of its loss to Ohio State. The Badgers bounced back by winning all four of their games in November, against Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue and Minnesota, to finish the regular season with a 10-2 record and win the Big Ten West title. Their defense ranks sixth nationally in yards allowed per game (277.0) and ninth in points allowed per game (14.6) while their offense is tied for 16th in points per game (35.8) and 36th in yards per game (442.6).
On paper, Wisconsin doesn’t look to be too different a team than it was when it played Ohio State the first time. Its offense still relies heavily on star running back Jonathan Taylor, though quarterback Jack Coan is coming off a 280-yard passing game in the 38-17 win over Minnesota. Its defense has been solid, but not nearly as dominant as it was in the first half of the season. While the Badgers held each of their first six opponents under 300 yards and 15 points or fewer, all of their last six opponents have topped 300 yards and scored at least 17 points.
That said, Day is expecting that the Badgers will try to do some different things against the Buckeyes than they did the first time, which means Ohio State will spend just as much time preparing and studying film to try to come up with the best game plan.
“They’re going to have different things they do,” Day said. “They’re going to work different mix-ups. When you work through a season, you find out what works, what doesn’t and you kind of find the strengths and weaknesses of your all three phases, and it morphs as the season goes on. And you make adjustments and you make corrections and you enhance certain areas and that’s typically why most teams are different at the end of the year than they are at the beginning, certainly, but also at mid-year.
“Certainly you look at that film (from the first game), but I think both teams are significantly different than when we played on Oct. 26.”
Day’s experience as an NFL assistant coach, as well as that of co-defensive coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison, could be beneficial this week. While it’s unusual for Ohio State to play the same team twice in a season, NFL teams do that every year against the other three teams in their divisions, and Day and his colleagues can draw from that experience in preparing for Saturday’s rematch.
Both teams are in the same boat from a preparation standpoint this week, though. They’ve both played four games over the past five weeks since they played each other, giving each of them the same amount of film to study from one another.
“It’s the same for both sides, so there’s certainly not an advantage, and we’re still going to spend the same amount of time watching film. But I think it’s just critical that we’re efficient with our time,” Day said. “Nothing will change this week in terms of our preparation.”
Wisconsin played in rematches in each of the first two Big Ten Championship Games, in 2011 and 2012, when it beat Michigan State and Nebraska. Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was the offensive coordinator for the 2011 rematch with the Spartans, so he’s been in this position before.
Chryst knows his team needs to play better to have a chance to beat Ohio State this time around, but also believes it is important not to overcorrect and abandon what has enabled the Badgers to win just about all of their other games this season.
“You do try to – I think every game you try to – what are a couple things that either we’ve been practicing but haven’t done yet, or is there something that you see on film that maybe you can do something?” Chryst said. “But I think all in all, I think your players play best when they’re doing things that they know and they’ve done. ‘Cause you think you know what you’re gonna get from another team, but you don’t know. ... So I think there’s a real fine line of trying to do something new and doing things that you’ve done well.”
“Nothing will change this week in terms of our preparation.”– Ryan Day on this week's rematch with Wisconsin
Even though Ohio State won handily the first time around, Chryst anticipates that the Buckeyes will make some changes to their game plan, too, which means the Badgers can’t solely focus on being better prepared for what worked against them for the first time – they have to be ready for new wrinkles, as well.
“You’ve got a sense of kind of who they are and what they’re doing, but then you also know that you’re probably going to see something different,” Chryst said. “I don’t think you’re just going to take ‘Well, this was their plan against us and that’s all they’re going to do.’ So I think you got to approach it like you’ve got information, you’ve played against them. I think your players certainly know, you’re not wondering ‘What are they like in real compared to the film?’ You know that, your players know that, but then I think there’s a newness to the preparation.”
Saturday’s matchup will be the first Big Ten Championship Game between two teams that already played each other that season since the 2011 and 2012 editions of the game.