The atmosphere in Madison is starting to grow more electric by the hour in anticipation of Saturday night’s top-10 matchup between the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers.
The Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0) are averaging over 53 points per game and almost 538 yards of offense. Defensively, a squad that lost some considerable talent has reloaded, is second in points allowed and fourth overall in total defense.
Ohio State defeated Indiana 38-17 last weekend, driving its record to 5-0. With so much talent leaving for the NFL, was this supposed to be a “rebuilding” year, and how have the Buckeyes maintained the status quo?
I think a lot of Ohio State fans entered this season with a sense of cautious optimism. Sure, the Buckeyes had to replace an almost unprecedented amount of NFL talent, but Ohio State has recruited at a level only matched by Alabama and maybe FSU since Urban Meyer landed in Columbus. The development of that young talent has allowed Ohio State to maintain its place as a national contender, and there has been little drop-off in most areas where a rebuilding process was assumed.
Lots of respect has been given to quarterback J.T. Barrett by Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Watt and head coach Paul Chryst in particular. How has he progressed this season compared to years past, and what makes him so good?
Barrett is probably most celebrated for his intangibles. He became the only sophomore in school history to be voted a captain by his peers, and he wasn’t even the starter entering the season. He’s such a steady leader, and that has been vital for an offense with such little experience anywhere else.
He’s also an effective runner, and is gifted in selling ball fakes on play action and the zone read—both important elements of the Urban Meyer offense. Where J.T. has struggled has been as a passer, and it could be argued that he’s regressed in that area since Tom Herman left as quarterbacks coach after the 2014 season.
Barrett leads a barrage of intriguing, dynamic skill players. What have Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber, Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown brought to this offense?
Curtis Samuel, and Dontre Wilson to a lesser extent, have brought a great amount of versatility to the Ohio State attack. The H-back position in Meyer’s offense requires a dynamic athlete capable at excelling as both a receiver and running back. Samuel is probably the first player that Meyer has had in Columbus who perfectly fits that build, having spent a season exclusively at each position.
You’ll see Ohio State line Samuel all over the field, which can create a lot of conflict for opposing defenses. Oftentimes the Buckeyes will first place Samuel in the backfield and then motion him into the slot, creating a one-on-one matchup with a linebacker or a safety. Wilson is less capable as an inside rusher than Samuel, and Ohio State hasn’t really featured him much as a rusher in recent weeks, but he’s another dangerous athlete in the slot.
Brown is an interesting player to watch this week. He hauled in four touchdown passes in a breakout performance against Oklahoma, but has only caught three passes in two games since. Weber is a thumper, following in the mold of Carlos Hyde.
Defensively, the Buckeyes have only allowed 246.4 yards per game (97.8 yards on the ground). Who in that front seven has stepped up this season?
The strength of the front seven lies in the depth of the defensive line, rather than the exploits of a single player. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson will throw waves of fresh players at the Badgers without experiencing much drop-off from the first and second units.
The linebackers rotate less, and the star in the middle is obviously Raekwon McMillan. He hasn’t had many highlight-worthy plays yet this year, but the Big Ten All-American is one of the best middle linebackers in the country. Sophomore Jerome Baker has flashed after stepping in for the injured Dante Booker earlier in the season, and will likely keep the starting spot even after Booker returns.
This is a fun stat: the Buckeyes have returned four interceptions for touchdowns through five games. Who in the secondary is making plays, and are there any weaknesses in this defense?
The secondary might be the most surprising unit on this team, showing little dropoff after replacing three starters, including NFL draftees Eli Apple and Vonn Bell. Some fans believed that Gareon Conley was better than Apple last season, and now most would argue that sophomore Marshon Lattimore has outperformed Conley. That could be a product of offenses just not throwing the ball Conley’s way, but Lattimore has been a stud defending the opposite side of the field, and both look like NFL corners. Denzel Ward, the fastest player on the team, also rotates in regularly.
At safety, Malik Hooker has drawn comparisons to Ed Reed during multiple broadcasts, which seems aggressive, but the ball-hawking sophomore does lead the nation in interceptions.
Ohio State has not recruited defensive tackles at an elite level recently, and it was assumed entering the season that the Buckeyes could struggle against power-run schemes. That notion has been dispelled so far, and the Buckeyes have still not allowed a rushing touchdown all season. Wisconsin will be the best test this interior line has faced as the first power-I team on the schedule.
What are your keys to the game for both teams, and what's your prediction for the game?
I think for Ohio State, it’s important that Barrett rebounds from his 9-of-21 throwing performance from last week and comes out sharp in the passing game. When Ohio State is unable to maintain balance, the coaching staff can become predictable with its play calling, and it will be interesting to see how long the leash is for Barrett and the receivers if mistakes are made early in a hostile environment.
For Wisconsin, the home team will have to capitalize on any Ohio State mistake and make sure the crowd isn’t taken out of the game early. If the Badgers can create big momentum plays early, like David Gilreath’s opening kickoff against No. 1 Ohio State in 2010, then Wisconsin can steal one from the Buckeyes again.
Otherwise, I have trouble seeing Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers’ offense doing much against the Silver Bullets of Ohio State.
I see Barrett rebounding in this one, with the coaching staff showing more imagination in the play calling, finding new ways to get Curtis Samuel the ball. Ohio State wins, 34-13.