The Wisconsin Badgers played their way into the early College Football Playoff conversation with a dominant first half of the season. But Wisconsin got caught looking ahead to their regular-season date with the Ohio State Buckeyes and lost to Illinois in stunning fashion. The next week, the Badgers were blasted 38-7 as Ohio State staked its claim to be the No. 1 team in the nation.
Wisconsin's two losses eliminated it from playoff consideration, but the Badgers have bounced back admirably, and last week beat Minnesota 38-17 to win the Big Ten West. Now Wisconsin has an opportunity to win its first conference championship since 2012, and by getting revenge for the earlier loss to the Buckeyes, hurt Ohio State's national title hopes in the process.
5 Reasons Why Wisconsin Will Win the Big Ten Championship Game
1. Running back Jonathan Taylor
It should go without saying Taylor is one of the best running backs in the country. Taylor should also go down as one of the best in college football history. However, the junior had his worst game of the season, and one of the worst in his storied career, against Ohio State earlier this year.
The Buckeyes limited Taylor to 52 rushing yards on 20 carries and kept him out of the end zone for the first time in 2019. Taylor averaged 2.60 yards per carry, which set a new career low. His worst prior? The 2.73 yards per carry he posted against Ohio State in the 2017 Big Ten Championship Game. Taylor gained just 41 yards on the ground against the Buckeyes that day, which remains a career low.
Needless to say, Taylor — who ranks second nationally with 1,761 rushing yards, and has scored 20 rushing touchdowns this season — is motivated to prove himself capable of beating the Buckeyes, both on the ground and on the scoreboard.
2. Protecting the passer
Wisconsin will likely try to get Taylor going, but the Badgers must also attack Ohio State through the air, which they failed to do in the earlier matchup. Quarterback Jack Coan completed 10 of 17 pass attempts (a season-low 58.8 percent) for 108 yards (also a season low) and one touchdown against the Buckeyes. Coan averaged just 6.4 yards per pass attempt in the loss, which was also the worst mark of the season.
Part of Coan's ineffectiveness can be attributed to the Ohio State pass rush. Led by Chase Young, who sacked Coan four times by himself, the Buckeyes recorded five sacks and forced Coan to fumble twice — both of which were recovered by Ohio State and converted into quick touchdown drives.
The Badgers have allowed only 18.0 sacks this season, which ranks second in the Big Ten. However, Wisconsin was exposed by Young and the Buckeyes (who lead the Big Ten and rank second in the country with 49 sacks as a unit) and must keep Coan upright more often in the rematch.
3. Pressuring the passer
Wisconsin hasn't been quite as disruptive to opposing offenses as Ohio State, but the Badgers are still capable of making life difficult for quarterbacks. While the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in interceptions (15), Wisconsin ranks close behind with 11. The Badgers have also scored on two pick-sixes.
The margin is even closer in sacks. Wisconsin has recorded 44 sacks, which ranks second in the league behind Ohio State and fifth nationally. The Badgers recorded five sacks against the Buckeyes earlier this season, and with linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun — both of whom have 11.5 sacks to their credit as seniors — Wisconsin is capable of pressuring Justin Fields again this week.
4. Time of possession
Prioritizing time of possession is out of fashion in today's college football, and it's understandable given the success of high-powered, fast-paced offenses. Wisconsin leads the nation in average time of possession (36:03) by more than a full minute over No. 2 Utah (34:53), but Ohio State has also controlled the football often this season, coming in No. 30 nationally with an average of 31:38 of possession per contest.
Controlling the pace of play is important to the Badgers, not only because it's within their comfort zone, but it also limits the scoring opportunities for opponents. With Ohio State leading the nation in scoring offense (49.9 ppg) and ranking fifth in total offense (534.3 ypg) and No. 7 in yards per play (7.08), it's vital Wisconsin keep the Buckeyes' offense on the sideline as long as possible.
5. The health of Ohio State QB Justin Fields
Fields has been exceptional in his first season with the Buckeyes. The sophomore transfer has completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 2,654 yards and 37 touchdowns with just one — one — interception in his first extended playing time as a college player, giving him the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the country. Fields has averaged 9.6 yards per pass attempt this season, and has added 470 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground as well.
But Fields is also a little banged up. He took a couple of hard knocks to his hand and wrist in the victory over Penn State, and though he played through the pain and continued to excel the next week against Michigan, Fields momentarily left that game with a knee injury. Fields had reportedly suffered a sprained knee earlier in the season, and returned to close out the win over the Wolverines, so it's unlikely he misses time against Wisconsin. But it's also unlikely he's 100 percent healthy.