Ohio State and Wisconsin have won or shared the last eight Big Ten titles. And the winner of Saturday’s matchup will take a huge step to playing for the conference championship in December, as the Buckeyes and Badgers are clearly the class of the Leaders Division. Both teams have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, which makes this game even more important for positioning within the division.
Feasting off an easy schedule, Ohio State has opened 4-0. All four of the Buckeyes’ wins have been by at least 18 points, including a 76-0 blowout win over Florida A&M. Under second-year coach Urban Meyer, Ohio State is 16-0.
Wisconsin is 3-1, but the Badgers record should come with an asterisk due to the ending against Arizona State. New coach Gary Andersen was expected by most to be a perfect fit Madison, and so far, Wisconsin hasn’t a missed a beat. In their three victories this year, the Badgers have outscored their opponents 134-10.
Ohio State has dominated this series recently, winning five out of the last six matchups. The Buckeyes have won three in a row against the Badgers in Columbus, while Wisconsin’s last victory in this series came in 2010. The last two meetings between these two teams were decided by a touchdown or less.
Wisconsin at Ohio State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -7
Three Things to Watch
Ohio State’s defensive line vs. Wisconsin’s rushing attack
The Buckeyes had to revamp their defensive line this offseason, as all four starters from 2012 had to be replaced. So far, the new starting group has played well. Ohio State ranks fourth in the Big Ten in rush defense, holding opponents to just 2.6 yards per carry. However, the Buckeyes haven’t played a rushing offense like Wisconsin, so this will be a major challenge for coach Urban Meyer’s defense. The Badgers rank third nationally in rush offense this season, averaging eight yards per carry and 348.8 yards per game. Junior Melvin Gordon and senior James White have combined for 4,356 yards in their career and stopping both backs will be a huge test for Ohio State. Considering Wisconsin doesn’t have a plethora of options at receiver, the Buckeyes could commit extra defenders to the box to stop White and Gordon. Ohio State will have some additional help in the trenches this Saturday, as end Adolphus Washington is back after missing two games with a groin injury.
After a two-game absence, all signs point to Miller returning to the starting lineup on Saturday. Before his knee injury, Miller completed 17 of 24 passes for 208 yards and two scores and rushed for 82 yards on 18 attempts. Although the junior is back under center, he hasn’t played since Sept. 7, and rust could be an issue. Also, is Miller 100 percent and capable of using his mobility to escape Wisconsin’s pass rush? There’s no doubt Miller is one of college football’s best quarterbacks, and assuming he is 100 percent, he will have an opportunity to take advantage of a Wisconsin secondary that features a true freshman at cornerback and two sophomores in key roles.
Wisconsin’s passing attack
The Badgers don’t hide their intentions on offense. With a big offensive line and one of the nation’s top backfields, Wisconsin loves to run the ball. However, the passing attack is a work in progress, averaging just 198 yards per game. Quarterback Joel Stave is efficient, completing 60.7 percent of his passes in his career and throwing 12 touchdowns on 130 completions. Receiver Jared Abbrederis is one of the Big Ten’s best, and tight end Jacob Pedersen is another steady option, but the Badgers lack depth and big-play threats in the receiving corps. Ohio State’s secondary is one of the best in the nation, and cornerback Bradley Roby was a preseason All-American. If Abbrederis is contained by the Buckeyes’ secondary, will Jordan Fredrick or Alex Erickson give Stave another target? Pedersen is a threat over the middle, but he is nursing a knee injury and could be less than 100 percent.
Key Player: Joel Stave, QB, Wisconsin
Ohio State’s rush defense has held up well through the first four weeks, but the line will be challenged by Wisconsin’s backfield. The Badgers want to control the tempo and eat up the clock, but even if the ground attack has success, Stave will need to hit a few big plays. The sophomore completed 15 of 30 passes for 187 yards and one score in the 32-30 loss to Arizona State. Wisconsin may need Stave to throw at least 35 passes on Saturday.
There’s plenty of familiarity between Meyer and Andersen, which has added another layer of intrigue to one of the Big Ten’s top games for 2013. Wisconsin will have success on the ground early, which is essential to slowing down Ohio State’s offense. However, the Buckeyes simply have too much firepower. Miller won’t have to win this game on his own, especially with a deep backfield – led by Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde – and emerging options at receiver. Considering Wisconsin’s offense is limited with the passing game, if Ohio State gets ahead, it could be a long night for the Badgers.
Prediction: Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 27