For the sixth straight season, the No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes have won at least a share of their Big Ten division. For the third time they will advance to the conference title game. And for the second time in four years they will play the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers. With both schools arguably fighting for a spot in the playoff, there is a lot to consider in preparation for Saturday’s clash.
Ohio State leads the all-time series 58-18-5. The Buckeyes have rattled off five straight wins in the series, including 2014’s 59-0 conference title game thrashing, and eight of the last nine. The Badgers have not defeated the Bucks since the former’s iconic 2010 upset in Madison. Wisconsin has won the Big Ten fourteen times compared to Ohio State’s 35 conference crowns.
The 2017 Badgers are definitively the best team in program history. For the first time since 1912 the Cardinal and White went undefeated, but this time they played more than seven games. The Badgers easily handled Utah State, Florida Athletic, and BYU in non-conference play. Only one opponent, Purdue, managed to keep the final line within one score: 17-9. The Badgers’ primary knock was their soft schedule; Wisconsin played only two ranked opponents (No. 25 Iowa, No. 19 Michigan) while handling an otherwise underwhelming division. The Badgers’ inter-division foes, 6th-place Indiana, 6th-place Maryland, and 4th-place Michigan, were hardly the cream of the East Division crop. This weekend will offer a much sterner test.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook leads the Badger offense. The lefty has completed 156-of-244 passes for 2,157 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. While he avoided a pick against Minnesota, he has thrown five interceptions in the past four weeks. The Badgers’ primary offensive threat is, no surprise, a running back. True freshman Jonathan Taylor has turned heads with his 1,806 yards on 158 carries and thirteen scores. Redshirt senior tight end Troy Fumagalli handles the aerial assault with 38 receptions, 471 yards, and 4 TD’s.
Wisconsin’s defense is a prominent strength once again. The Badgers are allowing 236.9 yards and 12.0 points per game. UW has recorded 39 sacks, 15 interceptions and eight forced fumbles. For Ohio State to keep the game close they will need to first and foremost protect the ball. By extension, expect a steady dose of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber in OSU’s gameplan. The Badgers have held opponents to a paltry 28.8% on third down conversions as well.
The Game never goes as smoothly as Buckeye Nation’s blood pressure would like. After falling behind 14-0 and 20-14, Ohio State pressed on to ultimately claim a 31-20 victory. The game’s biggest story may have been J.T. Barrett’s re-aggravated knee injury. When he went down with the injury in the third quarter, redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins was pressed into service. The young man handled himself incredibly well considering the circumstances. Haskins threw 6-of-7 passing for 94 yards which are not gaudy stats, but he protected the ball and managed game well enough to give Ohio State the win. Barrett expects to play against Wisconsin, but it will be interesting to track how long a leash head coach Urban Meyer gives him if the pain resurfaces. The Bucks cannot afford Barrett to gamely limp along against Wisconsin’s hungry defense. I cannot imagine Meyer benching Barrett, but we now know that Haskins can at least handle the first couple pages of the playbook if need be.
The game’s stakes go far beyond a conference title. Undefeated and in the CFP’s top four, UW almost certainly clinches a playoff bid with a victory. I cannot imagine a scenario in which a 13-0, Big Ten winning Wisconsin team is left outside the playoff picture. For Ohio State, the expectations are murkier. If the Buckeyes win, their resume would include an 11-2 record, Big Ten title, and quality wins over No. 2 Penn State, No. 13 Michigan State, and No. 4 Wisconsin. Depending on how the ACC, Big XII, and SEC conference title games shake out that might be enough to boost the Bucks into the College Football Playoff for the third time in its four year existence. The fine folks at Five Thirty Eight give OSU a 56% chance of victory and if you group that W with Clemson, Oklahoma, and Auburn winning then the Bucks’ chance at a top four spot is 49%. As always, Alabama looms in the background.
No one expected Ohio State to blank Wisconsin in 2014, and by no means expect another shutout this season. The Badgers are playing complete football, and will be playing like their lives depend on it. The Buckeye defense is as strong as its been all year, but the questions surrounding the quarterback are more than a little concerning. It’s reasonable to predict a low scoring game with plenty of Big Ten style field position and defense. It’s going to be close and predictions are silly, but I’ll guess a 24-21 final in overtime favoring the Buckeyes.