In what arguably is the biggest game in Wisconsin Badgers history, one more win signifies a Big Ten championship for Bucky, but also so much more with a chance to lock down a College Football Playoff spot.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (10–2, 8–1 Big Ten) will be the toughest challenge to date for Wisconsin (12–0, 9–0) on Saturday inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (7:17 p.m. CT, FOX). Across the board, the talent at every position is apparent, and the Buckeyes boast all-Big Ten performers on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett had surgery on his knee on Sunday, but it appears the redshirt senior—who just won his third Griese-Brees Big Ten Quarterback of the Year award—will play against the Badgers. Barrett leads an offense ranked first in the conference in scoring (43.8 points per game), total offense (529.8 yards per game), and rushing offense (250.3 yards per game). The Buckeyes have a dynamic tandem at tailback in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, but they also rank second in the conference in passing (279.5 yards per game) with an attack features the likes of K.J. Hill (51 receptions, 519 yards, three touchdowns).
Defensively, the likes of Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis leads a more-than-stout front seven that allows only 291.8 yards per contest, third-best in the conference, while tallying 95 tackles for loss in 12 games.
To give us more insight into Ohio State, we asked Land-Grant Holy Land’s Alexis Chassen to join us for some Q&A.
How would you describe this 2017 Ohio State team under Urban Meyer?
The similarities between the 2017 team and the 2014 national championship team are pretty eerie. This year’s expectations were a little greater, with the 2016 passing game being such a joke—due in large part to a litany of super young receivers—but ultimately having a chance to make it into the CFP was a bit of a pipe dream. Especially after the Oklahoma loss. The 2017 team is a good transition from the J.T. Barrett era in Columbus, and gave the young skill players time to develop before the team is handed over to a new, young quarterback in 2018.
It sounds like Barrett will in all likelihood play for the Buckeyes on Saturday, but we always ask about injuries. Who’s out and who could be in for Ohio State during the title game, and how does that affect the gameplan?
It was announced on Thursday that not only was Barrett injured last weekend, but subsequently underwent knee surgery the day after the Michigan game. Still, with only six days of recovery (which seems completely mind-blowing) he is expected to play against the Badgers.
If Barrett isn’t able to move well in the pocket, or struggles with side-to-side bursts, the team will likely let backup Dwayne Haskins get the start. If that’s the case, let’s just call this year’s Big Ten Championship Game “2014 2.0.” Wisconsin would face another big quarterback with little film to study and an arm like a cannon.
The Buckeyes are likely preparing for both QB options since Barrett brings a better rush attack and
Cardale Jones Haskins has a stronger arm. One difference between the former backup Jones and Haskins is that the latter has had plenty of snaps during garbage time throughout the season and isn’t nearly as “green” as Jones was.
Ohio State leads the conference in scoring offense, total offense, and rushing offense (second in pass offense to Penn State). Is it Barrett that powers this efficiency, or does it come from the rushing attack of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber? Who else should Wisconsin watch for?
Barrett’s ability (and penchant) for tucking the ball and running creates a lot of potential for the other skill players to step up. The problem is when Barrett makes this his go-to move—as he often does when the receivers struggle to get separation downfield. Throughout the season, he’s grown a little more confident in his receivers who have made a big jump in their development from Year 1 to Year 2, which has allowed Barrett to worry less about them getting separation and rather trusting them to make the contested catch.
When Barrett is able to trust his receivers, the running back duo of Dobbins and Weber has an even greater chance to shine. Both the receivers and rushers have extraordinary big-play potential, whether it’s Weber shaking off tackles, Dobbins taking it to the outside, or Parris Campbell making a six-yard catch and taking it 80 yards. Containing Ohio State’s ability to make big plays will be one of the biggest factors in Saturday’s match-up.
The Ohio State defense boasts immense talent and has recorded 95 tackles for loss this season. It appears a lot of the success starts with that front four. How do those specific playmakers create havoc for opposing offenses, and who else should we keep an eye out for?
Unfortunately for other teams, the Buckeyes still have a Bosa on the defensive side of the ball, and the younger Nick Bosa might actually be better than his brother, Joey. Nick Bosa is fresh off being named the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year thanks to his 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks this season. But it’s not just Bosa—the Buckeyes also have veterans Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, two guys expected to head to the NFL after this year, to bring pressure. It’ll be a tough task to break through the Badgers’ offensive line—especially with the job they’ve done this season in limiting sacks—but if there’s a front four that can do it, it’s Ohio State’s.
Against Iowa, Barrett threw four interceptions while the defense gave up big days to the Hawkeyes’ tight ends. On both sides of the ball, where can Ohio State be exploited?
You nailed it. Opposing tight ends have been giving the Buckeye defense fits this whole season, and again against Michigan last week, whose offense is terrible. The last few weeks specifically, big TEs have been making Ohio State’s linebackers look silly and completely unable to tackle (there is a good chance I lose my voice on Saturday from yelling, “Tackle him!”). The Buckeye secondary has gradually improved throughout the year, but once a receiver gets behind them, there is no recovering. The Badgers’ offense, while more prone to the run game, would be able to exploit the Buckeyes with mid-range passes to the outside that the receivers and tight ends can take up the seam for a score.
On defense, the Badgers will need to stay on the Buckeye receivers like glue. Barrett tends to panic when his receivers don’t have room down field and relies too heavily on himself to extend the play. By limiting the Buckeyes’ passing game, they’ll prevent run opportunities for the two-headed monster of Weber and Dobbins.
What are your keys to the game, and a prediction?
With both the Buckeyes and Badgers boasting some of the best rushing offenses in the country, the key to game will be which team has more success via the pass. If Ohio State can shut down Alex Hornibrook and TE Troy Fumagalli, the Buckeye rushmen should be able to at least contain Jonathan Taylor in the run like they did to Saquon Barkley of Penn State.
I think this game comes down to the wire, and is either a super low-scoring game dominated by the defenses or a point-for-point battle to a high-scoring game decided by no more than a touchdown. I think Wisconsin has more to play for, both in looking for redemption over Ohio State from 2014 and for getting their first nearly-automatic bid to the College Football Playoff ... but, I still think the Buckeyes somehow find a way to get the win. A two-loss season under Urban Meyer is rare, but a three-loss year is almost unthinkable.