When Ohio State clinched the Big Ten East weeks ago, the Buckeyes probably thought they’d spend a week worrying about how to stop Melvin Gordon or whichever running back the Big Ten West sent to Indianapolis.
If only this week were that easy.
Instead, Ohio State is dealing with a range of emotional and personnel obstacles ranging from tragedy to misfortune.
On Nov. 25, the Big Ten declared defensive end Noah Spence, a one-time five-star prospect, permanently ineligible stemming from his second positive drug test for ecstasy back in September. The conference classifies the drug as a “performance enhancer.” Spence hadn’t played all season.
Then, early in the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s 42-28 win over Michigan, quarterback J.T. Barrett was lost for the remainder of the season when he suffered a broken leg on a tackle during a run. Barrett had gone from an untested backup to Braxton Miller in the preseason to a Heisman contender.
And on Sunday, the Buckeyes learned of the most tragic news. Walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who had gone missing for four days, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Teammates remembered Karageorge’s energy and positivity, though he spoke to his family of his concerns from a history of concussions from his football and wrestling careers.
“We knew he had a lot of concussions, but we didn’t know he was depressed or anything like that,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “He was the most positive out of anybody, which goes to show there was no way to notice it until someone speaks up. Kosta was always positive, always thankful, so appreciative of everything football gave him.”
Yet in the face of this, Ohio State remains a College Football Playoff contender. The selection committee ranked the Buckeyes fifth in the most recent top 25, indicating the injury to Barrett was not an automatic eliminator for Ohio State’s national championship aspirations.
While selection committee chair Jeff Long did not say the Big Ten title game was a one-game body for work for this new version of Ohio State, it’s clear the Buckeyes, and specifically new quarterback Cardale Jones, has little room for error if Ohio State has any chance of moving into the top four.
In any other circumstance, room for error would be understandable.
“Every red flag is up, every excuse is out there to not play well, to not win a game, to lose a game,” Meyer said. “You have some really good built-in excuses. To overcome the incredible tragedy that happened last night, this is a real challenge. We're going to watch it very closely. I can tell you this: (this is an) extremely close team that does a lot of things together and cares about each other.”
Championship Week Previews and Predictions:
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: 8:17 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Wisconsin -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Cardale Jones
Does Ohio State’s Big Ten championship hopes rest on Jones? That’s not a stretch. The Buckeyes went undefeated in the Big Ten because J.T. Barrett became a Heisman contender through the course of the season. Even if this isn’t a one-player offense — Ezekiel Elliott topped 100 yards and six yards per carry in three of his last four games — Barrett is as close to irreplaceable as any player on a top team. Teammates have raved about Jones’ arm strength and opponents have noted how difficult it will be to corral the 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore. But experience is a factor for a quarterback who hasn’t attempted 20 passes during his career.
2. Wisconsin’s third quarter
How is this for halftime adjustments: Wisconsin averages 9.6 yards per carry in the third quarter. No team in the country averages even eight in any quarter. The Badgers are led in every quarter by the Big Ten single-season rushing leader Melvin Gordon, but especially in the third quarter. Gordon averages 11.3 yards per carry in the third, and 40.5 percent of his rushing yards have come right after halftime. The Badgers have needed these third-quarter bursts thanks to lackluster first quarters. Wisconsin hasn’t scored a first-quarter touchdown in three games. Meanwhile, the third quarter is the worst for the Ohio State rush defense. The Buckeyes are allowing 4.83 yards per carry in the third quarter, their worst for any frame.
Listen to the Championship Week predictions podcast:
3. Joey Bosa vs. Wisconsin’s offensive line
The traditionally great Wisconsin offensive line, with two All-Big Ten performers on the right side, goes up against the Big Ten defensive player of the year from Ohio State. All of Wisconsin’s offensive line weighs more than 310 pounds and all but center Dan Voltz stands 6-5 or taller. The 6-5, 278-pound Bosa will be tough to contain, though. He has 20 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season. If Gordon is going to get to the second level and if Wisconsin’s quarterbacks are to have any prayer, the offensive line must neutralize Bosa.
Through three Big Ten championship games, Wisconsin has won two of them, one of which during Gordon’s breakout game in a 70-31 upset of Nebraska. Ohio State has the most surprising loss in the game’s short history with last year’s 34-24 loss to Michigan State to deny the Buckeyes a trip to the national title game. As far as conference championship games go, the Big Ten has delivered in terms of surprises. What constitutes a surprise in this game, though, remains a question. No. 5 Ohio State is the underdog thanks to the injury to Barrett and a defense that has struggled in the last three games. Wisconsin, though, has a flawed passing game to go with its standout defense and Gordon-led run game.
Big Ten Championship Predictions
Wisconsin (-4) vs. Ohio State