Wisconsin’s Week 2 loss and decade-long scarlet and gray losing streak make the Badgers’ bite feel a bit nonhazardous as the weekend approaches.
On paper, though, Wisconsin presents perhaps Ohio State’s toughest conference-opening test in nine years – when the Buckeyes matched up with a 23rd-ranked Badger team in September 2013. While the names of Badger players and coaches have turned over, there hasn’t been as grand a departure in general philosophy for the Wisconsin program, which Ryan Day expects to bring its straightforward style of play and penchant for physical football to Columbus once again.
It’s a fitting welcome to Big Ten battle for the Buckeyes, who spent all offseason working to win games as gritty and hard-nosed as Saturday’s matchup portends to be.
“It's just kind of the epitome of the Big Ten. You're gonna get this when you get into conference play, and we knew that,” Day said Tuesday. “That's why we talked about this going into the game. We know their style of play, and it's not unique to Wisconsin. So we have to be able to play in these styles of games.”
Wisconsin’s combined 13-7 record over the past two seasons hasn’t exactly led to sweeping schematic changes for the Badgers, who average 218.3 yards per game and possess the No. 8 scoring defense in the nation through three weeks. With 6-foot-2 running back Braelon Allen leading the way on the ground, the Badgers have run the ball almost twice as much as they’ve passed it so far, and rely on a stifling defense to help bolster an offense that lacks the dynamic nature of Ohio State’s own.
But just because the Buckeyes know what’s coming doesn’t mean they can shut it down with ease.
“They have an identity for sure, which is important for a program. But they're very well-coached, and no, they're not easy to scout,” Day said. “They do a lot of different things and they're good at them. And I think one thing that you know about them is they're not going to deviate from their plan. But they're very good at, it's been very successful, so why would they? And year in, year out, they have guys who look similar, play similar and that's a tribute to the really good coaching that goes on that's on their team.”
Despite any perceived predictability, Day said Wisconsin wields far more than a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach in 2022. In particular, Day credited the Badger pass attack, which has increased its single-game yardage output and touchdown total in each game it’s played thus far with Graham Mertz under center.
“This is one of those games that I knew when I committed here was gonna be a big one because they're known for bigger, stronger guys. So I feel like this was always a game I've looked forward to since I was in high school.”– Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr.
“That's what makes them good. Good teams have tendencies, but so do we, and then there's change-ups off of those things, but they're good at what they do. And they're a lot more multiple than you think,” Day said. “When you look at what they're doing on offense, they're throwing the ball a lot more than they ever have. In my opinion, or at least in recent years, they're very good at that.
“Multiple up front in terms of the different fronts we're seeing, the different coverages that you get. So we got to prepare because they're very intelligent, they can handle high levels of information and they're a good team.”
Still, Wisconsin’s passing game ranks just 47th in the FBS, and the Badgers don’t have the dual-threat playmaking ability at quarterback that allowed Toledo’s Dequan Finn to gash Ohio State on several occasions this past weekend.
Given Ohio State’s struggles in losses to Oregon and Michigan in 2021, the Badgers’ strengths would have figured to give the Buckeyes fits last season. In Week 1, though, Ohio State faced a similar system and passed the test. Although Notre Dame suffered a catastrophic upset to Marshall the week after dropping to the Buckeyes, its talent at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball can’t be denied.
A critic might posit that the Fighting Irish’s subsequent struggles suggest Ohio State’s season-opening challenge wasn’t quite as steep as it was once thought to be. Either way, it won’t be the first time this season the Buckeyes have readied for a run-heavy team with impressive defensive accolades.
“We know about Wisconsin, we know (its) style of play, we know exactly what we have to do. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen,” Day said. “We got to go do it on Saturday. And this is a very good team that plays really hard and takes care of the football. So we're going to talk to them about all those types of things and challenge them.
“We've been talking about this for a long time and knowing that every week it's gonna be a new challenge. What are these challenges? A lot of them are the same, you gotta tackle, you gotta run the ball, you gotta stop the run, you gotta take care of the football, you gotta play well on special teams. We know all of those types of things.”
The Buckeyes aren’t pretending the intensity around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center hasn’t risen in the leadup to the conference opener. As seriously as Ohio State took its matchups with Arkansas State and Toledo, Wisconsin presents a different level of danger.
For Paris Johnson Jr., who is set to make his first start at left tackle against a Big Ten opponent, that prospect makes the contest all the more exciting.
“It definitely does mean more. I feel like it's a reason why some people, they go play in the SEC to play those SEC opponents. It's a reason why I come to the Big Ten and play in these type of games,” Johnson said Wednesday. “This is one of those games that I knew when I committed here was gonna be a big one because they're known for bigger, stronger guys. So I feel like this was always a game I've looked forward to since I was in high school, a game like this.”
Ohio State’s run game is coming off its most productive outing in 13 games dating back to last season. The Buckeyes dashed for 281 yards and five scores on the ground against Toledo. Ohio State meets plenty of resistance on the other side, though, as Wisconsin hasn’t allowed an opponent to rush for more than 3.3 yards per carry in any game yet this year.
Stopping the run has been the strength of the Buckeye defense thus far, with Ohio State giving up just 2.6 yards per pop on the ground. In Allen, though, Jim Knowles said the Badgers have a rusher who’s “as good as any that I have seen” in the “big back category.”
Luckily for the Buckeyes, captains like Cade Stover have made a point to stress the importance of toughness and physicality all offseason, and especially ahead of a game that should require no shortage of either.
“When you're playing tough and fast and physical, that's not something you can do one day. If you're gonna be tough and you're gonna be physical, you gotta do it every day,” Stover said Wednesday. “When you wake up, you got to be tough. When you go to bed, you got to be tough. It don't matter what situation gets thrown at you, that's kind of what we're playing like now. Each day's a step, each game's a step. To get where we need to be – I don't think we'll ever be where we need to be at, because there's always improvement – but I mean we're playing what I'd like to think is what I used to watch (James) Laurinaitis play in. I like that.”
Ohio State knows what it’s in for against Wisconsin this weekend, and welcomes the challenge of another head-on collision with a smash-mouth nemesis. But the Buckeyes can’t rely on their results against Notre Dame if they want to prove they can win grind-it-out games on a weekly basis.
“Any time you're in conference play, it ramps up a little bit. Everything means a little bit more,” Day said. “Wisconsin's a very good team, epitomizes everything the Big Ten's all about; really good coaching, very sound, they want to control the football.
“So this is going to be a big challenge.”