by Maxwell Brusky
So is there anyone out there that doesn’t think this Saturday’s game between the Badgers and the Buckeyes is not the de facto Leaders Division championship? Given that Penn State remains ineligible, Purdue has a loooong way to go, and neither Illinois nor Indiana are any good on defense, I’d say it’s about as certain as this game’s being the very last de facto Leaders Division championship. What’s also certain is that to this point, the ESPN/ABC combine considers this a big game as well, making it the national game of the week, starting at 7:00 p.m. central on ABC with the Musberger and Herbstreit A-team calling the action. Vegas has pegged Ohio State as touchdown favorite, but here’s just about everything else you need to know to help you make your own call.
THE STATE OF THE BADGERS
The Badgers are the only Big Ten team to have a conference win after rolling over Purdue last Saturday 41-10. Although the score was 14-10 at one point in the second quarter following another Joel Stave interception (which might have been on tight end Brian Wozniak, in any event), the outcome wasn’t in doubt for much of the game. UW held Purdue to 180 total yards and of those, just 45 was rushing. Meanwhile, the powerful Badger running game racked up 388 yards behind yet another star performance by Melvin Gordon (16 carries for 147 yards; three TDs rushing) and a nearly statistically equivalent by James White (16 carries for 145 yards; one TD rushing, plus 3 catches for 49 yards).
The Badgers’ measured, near cruise control performance against the just plain outclassed Boilermakers was not, however, able to mask another inconsistent outing by Stave. By the numbers, but for the one interception, Stave wasn’t bad, just somewhat pedestrian: 12 of 19 for 159 yards; no TDs. For those watching the game, though, Stave continued to stare down intended receivers on too many plays, missed wide open receivers on short, intermediate and long passes, and converted two third downs passing on six chances (including the interception), taking him to 18 of 32 on the season.
Simply put, Stave needs to clean it up. Some fans clamored for a quarterback change; that’s a bad idea. Stave remains the best option of a limited lot and does have what it takes to be a more than adequate helmsman for this offense. He can throw the deep balls accurately and he can move in the pocket when necessary. The problem so far this season is that he merely flashes; he hasn’t put it all together in a way that convinces anyone that he’ll have the kind of performance it will take to spring the upset this Saturday. At the risk of piling on, with redshirt freshman Dan Voltz reclaiming the top center spot with Dallas Lewallen remaining out, the risk of further quarterback-center exchange issues is elevated.
In what’s probably a related phenomenon, Jared Abbrederis remains the only receiver opposing defenses respect. With Kenzel Doe out, freshmen Rob Wheelwright and walk-on Alex Erickson saw more playing time. Wheelwright caught one pass, had a bad drop of another, and was badly missed on a third down chuck by Stave – difficult to evaluate, but surely doesn’t strike fear in anyone. Erickson caught the only ball thrown his way and it did convert a third down but his body of work is very limited. We’re still waiting, wide receivers . . . Now is the time.
Top tight end Jacob Pedersen left the game with knee injury (sprained MCL) and will attempt to go against Ohio State. Wozniak, Sam Arneson and Brock DeCicco will have to take up the slack. Capable players all, but none have ever caught a pass longer than 12 yards; DeCicco last caught a pass three years ago – when he was with Pitt. At least Arneson started last season against both Ohio State and Penn State. The UW tight ends have proved their worth as key cogs in the run game, but if Abbrederis will be checked for most of the game by All-American corner Bradley Roby, a tight end will need to be a receiving threat or at the very least, a reliable safety valve.
Defensively, UW continues to be very strong against the run, clocking in at 4th nationally with 76 yards/game. Chalk this up to the senior-laden and talented front seven led by Chris Borland and Beau Allen. Don’t underestimate the impact of the safeties either, especially Dezmen Southward and sophomore Michael Caputo, who plays best near the line of scrimmage.
The middle linebackers will have Derek Landisch back this week at full strength or close to it. While Landisch is the nominal starter, he’ll share time with Conor O’Neill, who’s performed more than admirably in his absence. Brendan Kelly is also full-go this week after missing Purdue; Vince Biegel made the most of his starter time while making a few freshman mistakes (with the roster bump, Leon Jacobs saw more time in the late going, which was nice to see).
The young UW secondary has perhaps played better than expected to this point, although its only real challenge came from Arizona State, and challenged they were. Sojourn Shelton recorded another interception, but Peniel Jean left the game with a hamstring injury. Andersen recently said Jean will play, but his potential effectiveness has to be in question. Reserve corner T.J. Reynard remains out and if Jean isn’t as ready as the Badgers would like, true freshman Jakarrie Washington will likely again see the extended playing time he had against Purdue.
UW’s coverage teams were adequate against Purdue’s capable return men while Kyle French made both his field goal attempts (32 and 27 yards). With Kenzel Doe still out with some sort of injury, Kyle Zuleger and Corey Clement will be back on kickoffs (Gordon and White could be available as well, per Andersen) and Abbrederis should remain the primary punt returner.
After having dispatched Purdue with ease sufficient to assuage any concerns about Arizona State “beating them twice,” UW is focused on the big, bad Buckeyes of Ohio State. From what’s been made available, the players and the coaching staff are looking forward to challenge of a hostile, big-time road environment against “the Big Ten’s best team,” which hasn’t lost a game under its current coach. The relatively few injuries aside, UW appears as ready as it can be for what right now is the biggest (and not because it’s the next) game on its schedule.
THE STATE OF THE BUCKEYES
As mentioned, and as everyone knows, Ohio State hasn’t lost a game yet under Urban Meyer (Ashtabula Jesus; the Pontiff, etc.). Last season they went undefeated, but their schedule abruptly halted after their victory over Michigan. This season, it’s really national title berth or bust. In the context of facing a “false king” like Wisconsin, Eleven Warriors’ Ramzy Nasrallah put it quite well: Ohio State must win this game convincingly to maintain national relevance for itself and for the conference. A squeaked-out win or, far worse, a loss, reduces them and their season to mere regional relevance.
So with that said, which team is under more pressure? Wisconsin is wound tightly enough with the anticipation of its biggest chance to make some noise within the conference and perhaps nationally – win this one and the remainder of the schedule plays out quite nicely. But Wisconsin is the underdog. Ohio State is the touchdown favorite with everything to play for; they know that a loss here not only defaults on the would-be lordship in the Big Ten, especially in the top-heavy Leaders Division, it also reduces their winning streak to a great, but ultimately unrealized time in Buckeye lore. What’s even more, it also all but removes them from national title contention in light of the conference in which they play.
With the talent this team has on hand, a loss will almost certainly be through no fault but their own – and make no mistake, on paper and top to bottom, Ohio State out-talents Wisconsin. The margin may not be gaping on either side of the ball, but it’s still clearly there. It’s up to Meyer and his staff to have that talent ready to execute and to overcome any doubts they may have from being barely tested by one of the weakest schedules of any of the national title contenders – Buffalo, San Diego State, California and FCS Florida A&M. The Buckeyes Demolished them all, but other than losing Heisman candidate Braxton Miller, who was spelled to near Wally Pipp proportions by Kenny Guiton, where’s the challenge?
In short, the Buckeyes should be just too damn good to lose this game and they know it. A hungry Badger team under a coach who isn’t befuddled or stymied by Meyer and “tOSU” mystique – nope, Gary Andersen and Urban Meyer are old friends – will give them their sternest test yet. The team knows that, too.
OHIO STATE IN BRIEF – PLAYERS TO WATCH
When the Buckeyes aren’t playing your team, they are fun to watch – and no, not just to see them lose, but because they have so much talent splayed across the field at almost all times. The sent-off Jim Tressel, who recruited the heart of this current team, brought it in by the bucket-load and Meyer has been doing even better. Other than its relative youth in some key spots, this team has nary a weakness.
The big story, both regionally and nationally, given the program’s profile and that of Braxton Miller himself, is his likely return against Wisconsin. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Guiton hadn’t gone from Big Ten OPOW against Cal to co-Big Ten OPOW (with Melvin Gordon) against FAMU, a performance in which he set the OSU single-game touchdown pass record with six. Guiton’s one hell of a back-up and there isn’t a coach in the land who wouldn’t want this problem, but Miller is the rightful owner of the starting spot.
The question remains – just how healthy is Miller? The word is that he’ll “probably” start, not that’s he’s “full go.” Meyer has already said he anticipates using both of them in the game and that the offense doesn’t change depending on who’s at the controls. Both quarterbacks can pass well, but a healthy Miller is a superior running threat. Wisconsin did the best of any team last season against Miller, holding him to 10 of 18 for 97 yards passing (no TDs) and just 48 yards rushing (also no TDs). Miller’s the type of player you can never doubt (after 2011, Wisconsin never would), but his health is likely to limit his overall effectiveness.
Either quarterback has a true plethora of weapons on the outside – Devin Smith is a home-run hitter while Z-receiver Evan Spencer is an up and comer. Corey Brown is listed at H-back (the “Percy Harvin” role, now engrafted onto every offense Meyer presides over) and his back-up is the highly-touted freshman Dontre Wilson. The reserve receivers, Chris Fields and Michael Thomas, would start as underclassmen nearly anywhere else. The tight ends, Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, are quality players as well. The starters all appear to be improved from last year.
Then, of course, there’s the running backs and the line they run behind. Do not believe that because Meyer runs a version of the spread that power running is absent. Bruiser Carlos Hyde, who scored two touchdowns in Madison last year, is back and in full effect, but speedy Jordan Hall (424 yards on 68 carries, 6.2 ypc) remains listed as the starter. They are backed up by Rod Smith and Ezekiel Elliot, who rolled up 200 yards on 21 carries against FAMU (Bri’onte Dunn is now expected to redshirt at this point).
The Buckeyes’ hulking offensive line, ideal for run-blocking, is led by all-league center Corey Linsley and anchored on the left side by All-American candidates Andrew Norwell (guard) and Jake Mehwort (tackle). They are the equal to Wisconsin in size and strength, and pave the way for a rushing attack that averages 311 yards, good for sixth nationally.
The Ohio State defense is led by All-American level defensive backs Roby at corner and the safety tandem of Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett – some of the most fun players to watch, even if they’re not playing your team. Will linebacker Ryan Shazier is an All-American candidate as well, but his ‘backer mates, Curtis Grant (middle) and Joshua Perry (Sam), have pressure on them to live up to their promise as recruits.
The defensive line started the season in the rare position of being composed entirely of new starters. The rush end (“viper”) is manned by star sophomore Noah Spence, but next to him, it gets a little murky, at least in Ohio State terms. Adolphus Washington, the other listed starting end, has struggled with a groin injury the past few games and might not be back up to snuff; freshman Joey Bosa has filled in for him ably. Inside, Joel Hale and Michael Bennett have done yeoman’s work, quietly contributing to run defense that’s allowed 80 yards/game, albeit not against teams that run like Wisconsin.
On special teams, returners Corey Brown on punts and Jordan Hall on kicks have been special at times (as UW and its fans well know). Drew Basil is an above average college kicker while punter Cameron Johnston, an Australian freshman, is growing into the role, averaging 41.1 yards on 11 total punts this season (he didn’t get much work last week). Special teams made big plays against the Badgers in the last two meetings; Ohio State simply has the roster depth to ensure that the third phase is always fully and capably manned.
As a general proposition, these two teams are strength on strength and this game promises to be just as “physical” as the last few installments have been. Both teams can run the ball and stop the run. To keep it on the general level, the 2013 version of the Buckeyes haven’t played a team anywhere near the level of the Badgers. For the veterans, it won’t be a surprise, but for the younger players that fill out Ohio State’s defense, especially its front seven, it will be a little eye-opening – they have the talent to compensate, but this may take away some the massive first-quarter advantage (outscoring opponents 95-14) the Bucks have enjoyed.
When UW has the ball, it should be able to run it effectively with Gordon so far this season emerging as unstoppable and merely containable. UW’s offensive line, even with Voltz at center, should present a stiff challenge unlike anything Ohio State’s seen this season. The game will turn though, on what Stave is able to do in the passing game – he must come close to putting it all together to give UW a chance at pulling the upset. If Ohio State’s supremely talented secondary is able to confuse him or if there is a pass rush that can consistently harass and frustrate him, turnovers and three-and-outs will fatally stall the UW attack.
When Ohio State has the ball, Wisconsin should be able to hold serve behind the force of its active, talented and deep front seven. Brendan Kelly may be back, but the hope is that the coaches have schemed him out of covering Jordan Hall, Corey Brown or Dontre Wilson on too many occasions – those guys are difficult for anyone to corral, including Biegel, and let alone Kelly.
If Miller or Guiton and their receivers are able to complete passes against UW’s secondary like Arizona State did, the onus will be put on the UW offense to possess the ball for extended periods and absolutely score when they do. Bear in mind, though, the Buckeye receivers don’t quite have the size or strength of ASU’s – but they are probably faster as a group. Wisconsin can force turnovers if they’re able to get to Miller or Guiton like they got to Miller last year.
If the Badger defense can turn it up a few notches from what they did in the Desert, they should keep OSU from scoring enough to win to the game – but that’s a big if against the sheer offensive talent at Ohio State’s disposal.
Wisconsin hasn’t won in the ‘Shoe since 2004 and at the end of that season, Ohio State made it to the Alamo Bowl, it’s “lowest” bowl prior to the 6-7 probationary season of 2011. The last two times UW was here were strange – in ’09, UW lost 31-13 after two pick-sixes and a kickoff return and despite outgaining the Ohio State 368-184 and having a 22-8 first down advantage, and in ’11, it took Wisconsin 50 minutes to wake up from the funk of the Hail Mary game at Michigan State and, on the strength of Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, and a then-budding Abbrederis, take the lead 29-26 with just over a minute to play. I cannot and will not say what happened next, but if it didn’t happen that way, UW just might have played for all the marbles that season.
But guess what, that’s when Bielema was coaching – just like they weren’t intimidated against Arizona State under the “new guy” in his first big game for the team, the Badgers won’t be intimidated on Saturday either. Andersen will tell UW to take what’s theirs and to have fun doing it – they’re an underdog on the road with no pressure other than to play to their potential. If Mark Schlabach can do it, so can I – I’m calling for UW to pull the upset and ruin Ohio State’s season, 33-30.
BONUSES FOR READING THIS FAR
You’ve seen this one before.
A battle of the Jens erupted last week in the wake of Rutgers’ come-from-behind win over Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks. In a retort to the infamous #karma tweet from Ms. Bielema, Jen Vrabel, the wife of Buckeyes linebacker coach, Mike, had this to say via the twitters: “Congrats to future Big Ten rival Rutgers. Big win over SEC opponent. #karma.” Just can’t wait to see what’s next in the #karma pool!