After rallying to beat Minnesota 34-24 and clinch the Big Ten West division title, the Wisconsin Badgers now roll into Indianapolis as one of the hottest teams in college football.
Since their last loss to Northwestern on October 4, Wisconsin has looked like a completely different team. The Badgers have rattled off seven consecutive victories to propel themselves back into the national spotlight. Wisconsin has moved up three spots to No. 11 in this week's Coaches and AP polls, and some are even beginning to discuss a far-fetched scenario in which the Badgers could potentially sneak into the College Football Playoff with a win on Saturday.
This week, the Badgers will have their sights set on the Ohio State Buckeyes. Led by coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State is currently ranked No. 6 in the country, per this week's AP and Coaches polls. The Buckeyes also been on a hot streak recently, winning their last 10 games and posting a perfect 8-0 record in conference play. But while the box scores may indicate that Ohio State's average margin of victory is a little over 21 points on the year, it's no secret that the Buckeyes have had their fair share of close calls this seasons -- including a double-overtime victory over Penn State in Happy Valley and three tight contests against Minnesota, Indiana and Michigan to finish off the regular season.
Saturday's game will have major postseason implications attached to it; and with both teams vying for national attention, there will be little room for error when the Badgers and Buckeyes square off on Saturday at 7:17 p.m. CT. But before the Badgers take the field and attempt to capture their third Big Ten championship in four years, here are three things to know about the Buckeyes.
Who is their new quarterback?
In case you haven't heard, Ohio State's freshmen sensation J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle in the second half of last week's game against Michigan, ending his record-breaking season. The loss will be a huge blow to the Buckeyes, as they had already lost quarterback Braxton Miller prior to the start of the season due to an injured shoulder. Miller had been regarded as Heisman-caliber due to his ability to make explosive plays on his feet as well as through the air, and Barrett proved to be no different as the season progressed. Now, the Buckeyes are down to quarterback No. 3, and next up is sophomore Cardale Jones.
At 6'5, 250 pounds, Jones has a size advantage over his predecessors at quarterback (Braxton Miller is 6'2, 215 pounds while J.T. Barrett is 6'1, 225 pounds). This allows him to be more physical when he is running the ball. Jones possesses a great blend of speed and power, which gives him the choice to either run over defenders or just run past them. In the video below, you can see Jones' athleticism on full display as he decides to hurdle over a Maryland defender while he is scrambling.
Jones has seen little action for the Buckeyes this year. He has played in seven of the Buckeyes' 12 games, but has only completed 10 passes for 118 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He has also ran the ball 26 times for 206 yards. However despite this lack of exposure, Meyer is confident that Jones will fit in just fine with the Buckeyes' offense because of his similarities with Barrett. After the Buckeyes' 42-28 win over Michigan on Saturday, Meyer told reporters he plans on utilizing Jones much like he used Barrett this season.
"I've said this many times, the quarterback is a product of the guys around him and the guys around him are playing pretty good right now," Meyer said. "The good thing is they (Jones and Barrett) a have similar skill set and so it's not like we're going to have to drastically change things."
Perhaps the most captivating aspect of Jones' game is his arm strength. Meyer, along with many experts, has described Jones as having "a cannon" for an arm. Throughout his time in Columbus, and going back to his high school career at Glenville High School, Jones has shown the ability to stand back in the pocket and deliver precise bullets to his receivers. You can easily notice Jones' arm strength just by watching a fraction of his senior-year highlights shown below.
But, as Christopher Jason of Land-Grant Holy Land pointed out in a recent article, Jones' arm strength can be an asset and/or a danger for the Buckeyes depending on how much Jones tries to do with the football. This will all hinge on Jones' decision-making ability. If he tries to do too much and starts forcing passes, it could lead to multiple interceptions. But, if Jones can make smart decisions in the pocket early on, it could cause the Badgers' defense to sag back in coverage and respect Jones' passing ability, which could open up the potential for Jones to scramble outside the pocket if he's not being pressured.
Can their defense stop the run?
Much of the hype surrounding both teams this week has revolved around their offenses. However the key to this game could very well come down to if the Buckeyes are able to stop the Badgers' rushing attack. Currently, Ohio State ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 4.0 yards per carry and 145.6 yards per game.
Melvin Gordon will not be the first elite running back Ohio State has faced this year. Two weeks ago, the Buckeyes' defense was shredded by Doak Walker finalist Tevin Coleman. Coleman ran for 228 yards on 27 carries and scored three rushing touchdowns during Indiana's 42-27 loss in Columbus. But last year, when the Buckeyes defeated the Badgers 31-24 in Columbus, the Buckeyes held Wisconsin to just 104 total rushing yards. Gordon ran for just 74 yards and no touchdowns on 15 carries that game.
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry led the Buckeyes in tackles this season with 108 total (64 solo). Perry has proven to have a nose for the ball and will be a major factor when it comes to slowing down the Badgers' tailbacks. On the defensive line, sophomore Joey Bosa has had a monster year and will look to continue his success against the Badgers. Bosa has recorded 46 total tackles, 20 tackles for a loss (a combined loss of 114 yards), 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Standing 6'5, 285 pounds, Bosa will be a tough physical matchup even for Wisconsin's extra-large offensive line. If the Buckeyes' defense wants to limit the run, then Bosa and the rest of the defensive line will need to be able to control the line of scrimmage and get good penetration in the backfield.
It is also important to remember that this game will be played in a dome, meaning the speed of the Wisconsin backfield will not be hindered by the cold, rain, wind, etc. In the two games that Gordon has played in a dome during his career (Nebraska in 2012 and LSU in 2014), he has averaged a ridiculous 14 yards per carry, running the ball 25 times for 356 yards and two touchdowns. This puts even more pressure on Ohio State's front seven to stop Gordon at the line. Because when Gordon breaks free in the open field, he has proven to be nearly impossible to stop.