Saturday’s showdown between Wisconsin and Ohio State has lost some of its appeal after the Badgers’ surprising defeat at Illinois, but this matchup could still be an early preview of what’s to come in the Big Ten Championship this December. While the Badgers want to get back on track after last week’s loss, the Buckeyes have another opportunity to add to one of college football’s top resumes through the first nine weeks of the season.
Ohio State hasn’t missed a beat under new coach Ryan Day. The Buckeyes have steamrolled each of their opponents by at least 24 points in a 7-0 start. With games against Maryland and Rutgers following this matchup, Wisconsin is the only thing standing between Ohio State and a 10-0 record going into matchups against Penn State and Michigan. Both sides of the ball have delivered in Day’s first season. Behind quarterback Justin Fields, the Buckeyes rank first in the Big Ten in scoring offense. The defense ranks second in the conference (8.0 ppg allowed) behind Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s loss at Illinois last Saturday was arguably the biggest upset of the 2019 season. The Badgers recorded shutouts in four of their first six games, demolished Michigan 35-14 in September and beat Michigan State handily (38-0) in the week prior to playing Illinois. Coach Paul Chryst’s team had plenty of chances to put the game away and outgained the Fighting Illini 420 to 315. However, two second-half turnovers and a missed field goal proved costly. The Badgers aren’t out of the Big Ten Championship picture but still have matchups remaining against Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota in November.
Ohio State holds a 59-18-5 series edge against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes have not lost to the Badgers since 2010. Wisconsin’s last win in Columbus came in 2004.
Wisconsin at Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at Noon ET
Spread: Ohio State -14.5
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
For the Badgers to have any shot at a win, running back Jonathan Taylor has to get on track. The junior has rushed for at least 80 yards in every game this season and enters Week 9 with 957 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. Taylor has only one previous meeting against Ohio State, as he managed only 41 yards over 15 attempts in the 2017 Big Ten Championship Game. Clearing running lanes for Taylor is one of college football’s top offensive lines, as this unit is anchored by standouts Tyler Biadasz (center) and Cole Van Lanen (left tackle). Ohio State has been stingy versus the run this season and running room won’t be easy to find on Saturday for Taylor. The Buckeyes are holding teams to just 2.6 yards a rush and less than 100 yards a game.
While Taylor is among the top players in college football, a productive outing against a standout defense won’t be enough to win in Columbus. Wisconsin has to be able to have some balance or a few big plays from its passing game. The effectiveness of the Badgers’ passing attack will also help Taylor find running room, as Ohio State won’t be able to devote extra attention to the box. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan has been solid in his first full year as the starter. The junior is connecting on 76 percent of his throws for 1,383 yards and nine touchdowns to just two picks. Coan has just one completion of 40 or more yards, but short passes and throws off play action have been effective for coach Paul Chryst’s team this year. Quintez Cephus (14.7 ypc) is the No. 1 target for Coan, with tight end Jake Ferguson (20 catches), Danny Davis (20) and A.J. Taylor (16) rounding out a solid group of weapons on the outside.
No team has managed to rush for more than 190 yards against Ohio State’s defense this season, so Wisconsin is going to have its hands full up front. The Buckeyes hold teams to just 3.6 yards a snap and no team has scored more than 21 against this unit. End Chase Young (9.5 sacks) anchors a deep line, while the secondary is led by two midseason All-Americans in safety Jordan Fuller and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah.
For Wisconsin to play its preferred style, Coan will have to be effective in the mid-range passes and keep the offense out of obvious third-and-long passing downs. If Coan is efficient and hits on a few big plays, the Badgers should be able to keep Ohio State off balance and help keep this game close into the fourth quarter.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Ohio State’s offense entered 2019 looking to replace record-setting quarterback Dwayne Haskins and three out of the team’s top four receivers. Despite those changes, coach Ryan Day’s offense once again ranks as the best in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes average a healthy 49.7 points a game and 7.3 yards per play.
Balance and versatility are the key words to keep in mind with Ohio State’s offense. Georgia transfer Justin Fields has been efficient (just one interception) and is completing 70.7 percent of his throws through seven contests. Fields has passed for 1,492 yards and added 291 yards and eight scores on the ground. The sophomore hasn’t had to attempt more than 25 passes in a game this year – a byproduct of Ohio State’s dominance and increased commitment to running back J.K. Dobbins. The junior has seen his carries per game increase from 16 in 2018 to 19 a contest in ’19. As a result, Dobbins has nearly totaled 1,000 yards (947) entering Saturday’s game. The steady play of Fields has garnered most of the national attention for Ohio State, but the offense pounds opposing defenses for 287.1 rushing yards a contest.
Only one team – Michigan State – has managed to hold Ohio State’s offense below 40 points in a game this season. Wisconsin’s defense leads the Big Ten by holding teams to just 7.6 points a contest and also ranks first against the run and pass. However, this is by far the unit’s biggest challenge of 2019. Linebackers Chris Orr, Zack Baun and Jack Sanborn have combined for 25.5 tackles for a loss this season and have played a role in the defense forcing 15 takeaways.
Wisconsin’s defense doesn’t give up much in the way of big gains, creates negative plays and takeaways and excels at getting off the field on third downs. That’s the formula the Badgers need to follow to win on Saturday. Fields and Dobbins will have success, but Wisconsin has to find a way to create a couple of takeaways and generate a handful of negative plays.
Even before Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois, winning in Columbus was going to be a tough assignment for Chryst’s squad. Some of the luster on this matchup has faded with the Badgers losing, but there’s still plenty of intrigue. Can Taylor and Wisconsin’s offensive line find running room against one of the nation’s top defensive fronts? When the Buckeyes have the ball, will the Badgers be able to slow Dobbins and contain Fields and a standout group of receivers? Wisconsin’s defense wins a few battles and keeps this game close until halftime. However, Ohio State’s defense keeps Taylor in check, while the balance on offense eventually puts this game away in the second half.