The Buckeyes will want to make Wisconsin beat them with the pass on Saturday, but if the Badgers pull off the upset, it’ll likely dovetail with a dominant day on the ground.
Two of the top six all-time FBS rushing leaders, Ron Dayne and Jonathan Taylor, played for Wisconsin in the past 25 years. Of the top 10 leaders in career rushing touchdowns, two (Montee Ball and Dayne) were Badger greats. And with Braelon Allen this season, Wisconsin has another bruising back in the mold of its long list of recent star rushers.
But the Badgers haven’t seen overwhelming success in implementing Plan A against Ohio State over the course of their last eight games against the Buckeyes. Wisconsin averaged just 3.5 yards per carry in those matchups, with only total eight rushing touchdowns to show for them, while losing all eight of those games.
That won’t make slowing down the Wisconsin run game any easier this weekend, but Ohio State has a proven formula for victory if it can stifle the Badgers’ offensive strong suit once again this year.
“That's Big Ten football. It's the fact that you've got to be able to win one-on-one battles in the running game,” Jim Knowles said Tuesday. “Hard-fought, fistfight, all those things that you – I think when you first start playing defense as a kid or you think about it, that's what you think of. Like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna put my hand down, I'm gonna defend the line. Don't back up and fight.’ Now as you get older and play defense, you think sacks and the glory and the game kind of changes. So we just have to put that hard-nosed mindset and everything that Coach Mick does in the weight room (to use).
“That's just all got to come down to one play. I know you're gonna run it, I know this is how you're gonna block me, and it's gonna be me vs. you. And we have to win those situations. So our guys need to just come out prepared, and we need to practice like that.”
Ohio State’s held Wisconsin under 100 yards rushing in four of the past eight matchups, and the Badgers have only rushed for more than one touchdown in one of those games. Wisconsin’s had three 200-yard rushing games in that stretch against the Buckeyes, but has only averaged more than five yards per carry on two occasions.
From a yards per carry standpoint, Wisconsin’s most successful outing against Ohio State came in their last meeting, a 2019 Big Ten Championship Game that saw the Badgers rush for 200 yards and three scores on 37 attempts. But all but six of those rushing yards (and all three touchdowns) came in the first half as the Buckeyes adjusted to snuff out the Badger run game late. That effort from the OSU defense enabled the Buckeyes to score 27 unanswered points en route to a come-from-behind, 34-21 win.
In Ohio State’s previous two matchups with Wisconsin before that, a regular-season contest in 2019 and another in 2017, the Buckeyes bottled No. 2 all-time Badger rusher Jonathan Taylor to a combined 103 yards on 35 attempts. Mind you, Taylor averaged more than 150 yards per game on 6.7 yards per carry for his career.
“I don't have the experience going back years with them, but to me, they're as good. Big, physical guys, well-trained and it'll be a battle.”– Jim Knowles on the Wisconsin run game
While Wisconsin’s next great running back might not wind up a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, Allen’s physical build presents a challenge unlike what Taylor brought to the table. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, the sophomore standout has four inches of height and 10 extra pounds on his predecessor, and Allen puts it to good use.
The Big Ten’s second-place finisher in rushing yards a season ago (1,268), Allen already has 332 yards and five touchdowns on 6.6 yards per carry through three games this season. Allen is fresh off a three-touchdown game against New Mexico State, and dating back to his true freshman campaign, he’s now had three such performances in his past seven games.
“He's different. Big, strong back,” Knowles said. “Certainly gone up against guys like him before, but he's as good as any – in the big back category – he's as good as any that I have seen. And we have to make sure that we have great form when we tackle him and rally to the football and vice him in. It's going to be a team effort because he is very talented.”
So far this season, stopping the run hasn’t been an issue for the Buckeyes. Ohio State ranks 24th in the country in run defense, which is only four spots better than where it finished the 2021 season, but it’s allowing 42 fewer yards per game than it did a year ago.
Still, Knowles said “it can get a lot better.” Ohio State didn’t have emerging star defensive tackle Mike Hall available against Toledo, which ran for 124 yards against the Buckeyes – the most they’ve given up thus far – this past weekend. But Knowles said he’s been told Hall should be good to go on Saturday.
Wisconsin’s 27th-ranked rushing offense is the top-rated unit Ohio State will have taken on this season, although it didn’t salvage the Badgers from suffering a Week 2 loss to Washington State. Wisconsin ran for fewer than four yards per carry and no touchdowns against the Cougars, whose run defense is comparable to Ohio State’s own through three games.
Knowles said the Buckeyes have studied film from that contest many times in preparation for the Badgers, but thinks their offensive line and rushing attack is on par with any Wisconsin unit in recent years.
“You look at the highest caliber or quality opponent, and that was certainly a game that we focused on and will continue to, but I think their offensive line is very solid,” Knowles said. “I don't have the experience going back years with them, but to me, they're as good. Big, physical guys, well-trained and it'll be a battle.”
The oddsmakers predict a much wider margin of victory for Ohio State than Washington State mustered, and if the Buckeyes manage to mitigate the Badger run threat on Saturday, they may very well be on their way to another commanding win against Wisconsin.