The atmosphere is buzzing in Madison as the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers get ready to host the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday night.
ESPN’s College GameDay is in town and broadcasting live from Bascom Hill on Saturday morning, and more of the ESPN radio contingency has been in town towards the end of the week.
The Badgers (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will face another potent Buckeyes’ team (5-0, 2-0) with playmakers on both sides of the ball. Ohio State is currently a 10.5-point favorite, but to pull yet another legendary upset against their top five opponent, Wisconsin will have to do the following:
Contain the Ohio State offense by playing disciplined defense
Wisconsin contained Michigan’s offense two weeks ago, holding the Wolverines to 14 points (the Wolverines’ season average was over 50 at the time) and 350 yards of offense (average was around 470).
This week presents yet another daunting challenge facing quarterback J.T. Barrett and an explosive Ohio State offense that averages 53.2 points per game (third in FBS) and leads the conference in five major offensive categories:
- Scoring offense
- Total offense: 537.6 yards per game
- First downs: 26.6 per game
- Rushing offense: 323.6 yards per game
- Passing efficiency: 163.5
On top of that, the Buckeyes have converted 52.9 percent of their third downs. Wisconsin, sixth in the nation in rushing yards allowed (90.4), needs to follow the formula that stymied Michigan’s attack two weeks ago, though there are multiple weapons the Badgers will need to monitor.
“They’re very well-coached,” inside linebacker Jack Cichy said on Wednesday. “As an offense, they move the ball very well, so defensively, we’re just going to have to combat their pace and get our communication down. We got to align what they’re doing, and we’ll be in good shape.”
Wisconsin’s motto this season is “Strong, Tough, Dependable.” The latter is the most important aspect for Saturday’s game.
Discipline will be key, and Badgers defenders have stressed doing their “1/11th” the entire season—knowing their assignments and not trying to do too much.
“You see with Ohio State, they live off of big plays” said Cichy, who leads the team in tackles (35). “Honestly, a lot of the times, it comes with one person out of place might do the wrong job. Our communication has to be on point so we limit those explosive plays.”
Barrett this season has made plays both on the ground and through the air. He’s averaged nearly five yards per rush through five games with four touchdowns.
Complementing the potent run game, he’s completed over 64 percent of his passes for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns with three interceptions.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Cichy said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got an arm, and he can beat you with his feet. When it comes to play, you got to be disciplined with their zone reads and read games. You have to be really disciplined to what your job is so we have to force him to do what we want him to do.”
Barrett isn’t the only weapon to try to slow down. Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber leads the conference in rushing with 113.2 yards per game and could become that powerhouse back in Columbus for years to come.
Curtis Samuel is fourth in the conference in receptions per game (4.6), but leads the Big Ten in all-purpose yards per game (151). He leads the team in catches and receiving yards (23 for 345 yards).
There are also wide receivers Dontre Wilson (15 for 189 yards, four touchdowns) and Noah Brown (12 for 165 yards, five touchdowns) who could provide an overachieving Wisconsin secondary with some problems.
Again, the message for the players this week has been knowing their respective roles.
“They have those really quick and fast skill players so that’s something we have to respect, but we can’t fear it,” redshirt junior outside linebacker Garret Dooley said on Wednesday. “As an outside linebacker group, inside, safeties, whoever it is that [the defensive player] is assigned to, whether it to be the quarterback or the pitch player, we just have to make sure that we’re disciplined in our assignment.
“If we’re going to make a mistake, make it 100 percent. You just can’t play too timid out there. You just got to go out there and play football.”
Ground game needs progression this week
Again, a tall task, but something Wisconsin needs to establish to have a chance.
An offensive line that struggled last year has experienced more growing pains this season due to injuries. With guards Micah Kapoi (foot) and Jon Dietzen (right leg) facing injuries through the majority of UW’s first five games—along with the retirement of guard Dan Voltz prior to the season—the results haven’t been as productive as hoped.
Wisconsin has rushed for 161.8 yards per contest through five games, good for 78th in the FBS.
The Buckeyes’ defense hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season and is allowing 97.8 yards on the ground (ninth in the nation) despite losing extensive talent to the NFL.
To help alleviate pressure against redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was hit often against the Wolverines two weeks ago, Wiscosnin’s offensive linemen have to establish a push at the line of scrimmage.
On top of that, running back Corey Clement has taken the bye week to reexamine his play early this season. In an article by ESPN.com’s Jesse Temple, Clement and running backs coach John Settle noted Wisconsin’s standout player wasn’t trusting the process.
"As I'm seeing, I'm just being too fast to the holes, and things are not flowing how I want to," Clement said. "Linebackers are beating me to the spot, and I'm not letting my blockers set it up how they want it. It's just all about being level with your line and just having the same mindset of knowing what needs to be done to break out this game."
Wisconsin will have its hands full with a talented front seven that reloaded from a year ago. If the Badgers can’t establish the ground game, it’ll be a long day for Hornibrook against an Ohio State defense that already has returned four interceptions for touchdowns this season.
Take advantage of every opportunity given
Two weeks ago in their 14-7 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Badgers had opportunities for three interceptions in the first half, two of which could have led to either negating points for the Wolverines, or putting the Badgers up on the scoreboard. That included a near interception by junior cornerback Lubern Figaro, that if caught, would have resulted in a long gain or a possible pick-six to tie the game at 7-7.
Four turnovers against Michigan State led to 13 points, including Musso’s 66-yard fumble recovery for a score that extended a seven-point lead to a 20-6 advantage. Through five games, UW has forced 10 turnovers, the most since the 2009 season.
Against the Buckeyes, any fumble caused or possibility for an interception must be capitalized upon by a defense facing its fiercest challenge so far this season.
There’s also the weather. With forecasts noting an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms this evening and chances for storms between 6-7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on, any slick ball could be jarred out or thrown poorly. If that’s the case, Wisconsin has to not only protect the rock when it’s on offense or returning special-teams opportunities, but create plays on defense to generate points.