A potential preview of the Big Ten Championship Game is on tap Saturday night, as Ohio State puts its unbeaten record on the line in a tough road environment in Madison against Wisconsin. Thanks to Big Ten realignment, these two teams and traditional conference powers have not met in a regular season game since 2013 and last played in Madison since 2012.
Despite a massive departure of talent to the NFL, Ohio State hasn’t missed a beat in 2016. The Buckeyes are 5-0 and ranked as one of the top teams in the nation. Coach Urban Meyer continues to stockpile talent in Columbus, which ensures Ohio State maintains its place among the nation’s elite. Meyer’s revamped Buckeye team hasn’t faced too many hurdles so far this year. Ohio State cruised to wins over Bowling Green and Tulsa (after a tough first half), defeated Oklahoma 45-24, handled Rutgers 58-0 and eventually pulled away from Indiana (38-17). Quarterback J.T. Barrett and a standout defense is the foundation of this team, and this trip to Madison is likely the toughest hurdle remaining for this team until the season finale against Michigan.
Wisconsin’s schedule was projected as one of the toughest in the nation prior to the start of the 2016 season. Not only did the Badgers have to match LSU in non-conference play, but coach Paul Chryst’s team faced Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover action with the Big Ten’s East Division. Chryst has guided this team to a 4-1 start, which included upset wins over LSU and Michigan State. Wisconsin dropped its first game of the season against Michigan (14-7) in Week 5 but is still squarely in the mix to win the Big Ten’s West Division. However, with one loss already, the Badgers can’t afford another defeat to remain in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. And after Saturday night, the road isn’t going to get easier. Wisconsin travels to Iowa in Week 8, followed by a home date against Nebraska in Week 9.
Ohio State holds a 57-18-5 series edge over Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have won four in a row against the Badgers, including a 59-0 rout in the 2014 Big Ten Championship.
Ohio State at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook
Passing against Ohio State’s secondary has been a risky proposition for opponents in 2016. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only four passing touchdowns through five games. Additionally, only one opponent (Oklahoma) has managed to throw for more than 200 yards against Ohio State’s secondary. This unit is led by sophomore Malik Hooker and cornerback Gareon Conley, who have five combined interceptions in 2016 and figure to make life difficult for Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook on Saturday night. The redshirt freshman supplanted Bart Houston as the team’s starting quarterback after the 23-17 win over Georgia State and completed 16 of 26 passes in a win over Michigan State. However, Hornibrook and the offense struggled against Michigan’s standout defense, as the redshirt freshman completed 9 of 25 throws for 88 yards, one score and three interceptions. Not only is Hornibrook throwing against one of the nation’s best defensive backfields, he’s also facing a deep and talented Ohio State defensive line capable of generating pressure with its front four. Needless to say, the spotlight is on the redshirt freshman quarterback. With two weeks to get ready, coach Paul Chryst will have Hornibrook and his receivers prepared for this matchup. However, Hornibrook is going to have to play a lot better (and likely under a lot of pressure) for Wisconsin to pull off the upset.
2. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Considering the turnover at receiver from last season, it’s no surprise Ohio State’s passing attack has sputtered at times in 2016. The Buckeyes threw for 417 yards in the opener against Bowling Green but beat Tulsa with just 149 yards on 14 completions. The numbers were better against Rutgers (259) and Oklahoma (152 on 14 completions), but Indiana’s defense provided plenty of resistance last week. The Hoosiers held quarterback J.T. Barrett to only 93 yards and one touchdown on nine completions. There’s certainly no reason to panic for coach Urban Meyer, but the passing game is a work in progress for the Buckeyes. In order to win, Meyer doesn’t need a 300-yard effort through the air from Barrett on Saturday night. However, the Badgers rank fourth among Big Ten teams in pass efficiency defense and have generated 15 sacks through five games. Linebacker T.J. Watt (5.5 sacks) is responsible for most of the damage, and his presence and performance is even more critical with Vince Biegel sidelined once again due to a foot injury. Just like Wisconsin signal-caller Alex Hornibrook, Barrett is going to see his share of pressure on Saturday night. The Badgers will try to use the formula they used (pressure and different looks at the line of scrimmage) against LSU and Michigan State to pull off the upset on Saturday night. Will Barrett’s one-week blip become a two-week problem? Or will Ohio State’s offensive line protect Barrett, allowing him to connect with Curtis Samuel (15 ypc), Dontre Wilson (12.6) and Noah Brown (13.8) downfield? And when Barrett breaks containment in the pocket, his ability to make plays on the run is a huge x-factor. Can the Wisconsin defense limit the damage on Barrett’s running plays and make him win this game through the air?
3. The Ground Attacks
In order to pull off the upset on Saturday night, Wisconsin cannot afford to be one-dimensional on offense. The Badgers rank eighth in the Big Ten in rushing offense (161.6 ypg) and average 3.8 yards per rush. Those numbers are similar to what Wisconsin recorded last season, but coach Paul Chryst’s team has faced three talented defensive fronts – LSU, Michigan State and Michigan. Test No. 4 comes on Saturday night against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have yet to allow a rushing touchdown and limit opponents to 2.7 yards per carry. Wisconsin running back Corey Clement missed most of 2016 due to injury and opened the year with 86 yards against LSU and 111 against Akron before suffering an ankle injury. He recorded 54 yards against Michigan State and 68 against Michigan but the bye should allow a return close to full strength. Clement’s production is essential. Can the Badgers get Clement on track and keep Hornibrook out of third-and-long situations? If Clement struggles to get on track, Wisconsin’s offense will struggle to move the ball.
Wisconsin has excelled against the run so far in 2016, limiting opponents to just 90.4 yards per game. The Badgers held LSU to 126 in the opener and limited Michigan to just 130 yards on the ground in Week 5. As evidenced in last week’s win over Indiana, Ohio State’s passing game is still working through some of the kinks this season. However, the Buckeyes gashed the Hoosiers for 290 yards and four touchdowns, which certainly lifted the offense in a 38-point effort. While Wisconsin contained LSU and Michigan, Ohio State’s ground attack is a little different. The Buckeyes are capable of testing the middle on traditional power runs, but this offense is going to attack the edges and perimeter of Wisconsin’s defense. Running back Mike Weber (566 yards) is the lead option, but hybrid running back/receiver Curtis Samuel (8.2 ypc) is a big-play threat off the edge on read or sweep plays. Additionally, Barrett (342 yards) is tough to contain in the pocket on breakdowns or on called quarterback runs and read plays.
Both teams have been stingy against the run all year. Will one team breakthrough with a big performance on Saturday night? Finding success here is more critical for Wisconsin, as Ohio State’s offense has more weapons and a better overall quarterback to carry the team in the passing game if needed.
Points and overall big plays by both offenses are likely to be in short supply on Saturday night. The obvious strength for both Wisconsin and Ohio State is on defense, and those units are capable of controlling the flow of the game. The Badgers had an extra week to prepare thanks to a bye, which should allow Chryst and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to throw a few new wrinkles at the Buckeyes. While both teams are salty on defense, there’s a clear edge on offense for one team: Ohio State. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Wisconsin generates enough of a consistent ground attack to move the chains, barring a huge effort by quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The Badgers’ defense should keep Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett in check early on. However, the Buckeyes have too many weapons and eventually put this game out of reach in the fourth quarter.