Over the past four years -- a timetable I personally consider given my recent graduation from UW -- there have been two teams I cherished beating more than any other. Figuring them out is hardly rocket-science -- I've lauded the prospects of Wisconsin-Michigan State as the Big Ten's best budding rivalry and repeatedly lamented its looming football hiatus.
The other opponent, naturally, is Ohio State. And this is no hate piece. But given the recent highlights of that rivalry -- David Gilreath's opening-kickoff touchdown in 2010 when OSU was No. 1 and last year's Hail Mary nightmare, to name a few -- its one that's been especially nice to cherish. Even the lowlights -- most notably Bret Bielema and Urban Meyer's offseason recruiting spat -- have been entertaining, to say the least.
So in order to capture the Buckeye perspective entering this season's match-up, we've reached out to Luke Zimmermann, Editor-in-Chief of SB Nation's fine Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land. As you'd expect from a 10-0 team that's continued to ride the brilliance of Braxton Miller, Buckeye fans are fairly optimistic entering Saturday's showdown. But they're also wary about returning to Camp Randall, where Wisconsin's 31-18 win in 2010 disrupted Ohio State's previously stellar season. I'd also venture that win spurred the Badgers into the greater national prominence they've enjoyed over the past couple of years, though that's a thought for an entirely different column.
1. B5Q: To start, how are Ohio State fans feeling about the season thus far? I imagine you're feeling pretty well, but what specifically has gone right or wrong, and how do you expect it all to translate into Saturday's game?
Luke: It's hard to be anything but positively giddy. I know I was considered maybe a bit on the realistic/pessimistic side by expecting 9-3 to 10-2, but 10-0 with a legitimate shot to win both of their remaining games? Only the most Yankee-ian, out of touch expectation-wise fans can possibly be unhappy with the current state of affairs.
The offense has really taken (schematically speaking) and Braxton Miller has continued to grow leaps and bounds in the process. Gone are the days of Tresselball and systems that relied on having the best athletes execute the most fundamental of plays better than the other guy. The wide receivers are light years better than most thought they would be and the offensive line has come a long way from where they were in spring to boot.
In terms of what hasn't gone so well? The defense isn't as improved as it probably should've been in a perfect world. The safeties have been as bad (or at least inconsistent) as many feared. Also, the entire defense has had real trouble staying healthy. Many (myself included) were saying Ohio State had a top 2 or 3 defensive line in the country going into the year. A combination of injuries in and around them and other issues defensively have rendered that basically a bad joke at this point.
2. B5Q: Ohio State has the top scoring offense in the Big Ten (39.9 points per game) and the No. 2 offense by yards (445.3 per game). What's the most significant reason for that success, and how much is owed to what Urban Meyer has brought to the program?
Luke: Braxton Miller's played a key role but putting him in a system perfectly catering to his particular skill set is probably the biggest key. Having a coordinator of Tom Herman's intelligence being able to bounce plays off Meyer has been invaluable. I think their collective brain trust has paired Meyer's ideology and playbook with Herman's acumen and the result has been what you're seeing now. Now just wait until they get their guys in the system.
3. B5Q: Badgers fans remember their first encounter with Braxton Miller all too well. Obviously, he's amazingly talented -- even Bret Bielema called him a "really, really gifted human being" on Monday. But how much better is Miller than last year, and in which areas has he improved the most?
Luke: As a passer? Much. He's able to read defenses at the line (though not at an ideal level in any sense of the word) plus makes multiple passing reads, which wasn't something he did often a year prior. He still needs to get better in both of these departments, but having just one year in the offense has probably put him behind the curve a bit.
I think the area Miller's improved the most has been his consistency. That may sound like blasphemy to some Ohio State fans, but even given the hot-and-cold starts this team sometimes still has, Miller can get dialed in in a flow state of sorts and just hit receiver after receiver while also knowing when to check down and run at just the exact right times. That wasn't something he did with an awful lot of regularity last season.
4. B5Q: How good is Ohio State's defense? The Buckeyes rank seventh in both scoring defense (23.9 points allowed per game) and total defense (367.6 yards allowed per game).
Luke: Better than those numbers indicate. Due to a lack of depth, the team has a propensity to give up late garbage-time defensive points (and yards). They also seem to approach things with a bend-don't-break approach more often than Ohio State's defenses historically do. While I don't think they're as bad as they looked, in say, the Indiana game, they probably aren't as good as they looked against Illinois. Wisconsin will serve as a jarring litmus test to determine precisely where they're at.
5. B5Q: As quickly as you can, how do you breakdown the advantages between these teams on offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff and intangibles?
Luke: I think while both teams have been extraordinarily uneven this season, both have gotten better as the year has gone on. Ohio State's offense is clearly more prolific, while Wisconsin's defense is the stronger/more consistent of the two. Ohio State's special teams are also bizarrely sub-Tresselean, which may be even more puzzling than the defensive woes, come to think of it. I'll give Wisconsin the edge in that department. Bret Bielema's a smarter X&O guy than he might otherwise appear to be, but Urban Meyer and his staff are A-rate and I think Ohio State gets the nod there. The only intangible in my mind is how Ohio State reacts to being in a hostile territory after a week off. I can recall post-bye week Wisconsin losses of yesteryear and while I'm less worried than I have been sometimes in the last decade of Buckeye football, Camp Randall can certainly be an intimidating atmosphere to play in.
6. B5Q: Wisconsin has been remarkably difficult to predict this year. Given that and what you've seen from Ohio State, what kind of game are you expecting on Saturday?
Luke: Still not sure if this is going to be a defensive slugfest or a race to 42. My instincts say this will somehow find a way to be low-scoring, but Ohio State's offense hasn't really made that a reality since the Michigan State game. I'll say the winning team leads by about 10-13 comfortably the majority of the game, but the other team keeps scoring to make it a one-score contest only to be rebuffed not long there after (rinse, repeat).
7. B5Q: Lastly, should we expect a sizable Buckeye contingent at Camp Randall? And do you have a prediction?
Luke: Ohio State fans travel well but aside from those in Chicago, especially for a big time home game like this, other than the visitor's allotment, this isn't the year nor the team to get folks out en masse.
If I was a wagering man, I'd say Ohio State 28 - Wisconsin 20. That's probably prone to change a half dozen times or so leading up to Saturday, so take it for what it's worth.