COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The preliminaries are over for Ohio State, which knows it needs to push itself even higher if it wants to start Big Ten play with a victory over Wisconsin at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes (3-0) put it all together in a 70-21 win over Toledo last Saturday, and Wisconsin was embarrassing New Mexico 66-7 the same day. The Badgers (2-1) come in with dreams of winning the Big Ten West, but also with visions of beating an Ohio State team it hasn’t defeated since 2010 in Madison.
“Anytime you’re in conference play, it ramps up a little bit. It means a little bit more.” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. Wisconsin has “very good players,” and he knows “this is gonna be a big challenge.”
Here are three things to know when the Badgers and Buckeyes kick it off.
Ohio State will need to get physical
OSU has done it with tempo and finesse the last couple of games, but the opener against Notre Dame was more grit, strength, and physical play. The Buckeyes will need to flashback to that game for a refresher course, as Wisconsin is typically among the most physical teams in the conference.
The Badgers don’t do much fancy. They’ll line up in a lot of power formations, using two tight ends and a fullback, and they’ll run the ball and try to overpower opponents with their big bodies up front. Defensively, their front seven is big and active and disruptive, and the linebackers can usually knock players into next week.
It will be a different mindset and approach this weekend for Ohio State, and Day knows it.
“They have an identity, for sure. … They’re not going to deviate from their plan. And they’ve been very successful, so why would they?” Day said. “They’re a lot more multiple than you think; [however], it’s kind of the epitome of the Big Ten to play against Wisconsin.”
In most games, Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson is the unquestioned best talent on the field. But Wisconsin has a runner who can challenge him in sophomore Braelon Allen, who ran for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns last season when he was 17 years old. He has 332 yards (6.64 per carry) and five touchdowns in the Badgers first three games and will no doubt be the focal point of the Buckeyes defense.
“It’ll be the best running back we’ve seen,” Day said.
Allen is the latest in a long line of great Wisconsin runners, which includes Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor. At 6 feet 2 and 235 pounds, Allen has the size to be a real problem for defenders but also has quick feet and elusiveness.
Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Knowles knows the challenge his bunch faces as the Badgers average 5.90 yards per carry on first down.
“He’s different,” Knowles said of Allen. “Big, strong back. In the big back category, he’s as good as any I have seen. We need to make sure we have good form when we tackle him.”
Washington State was able to thwart a lot of what Wisconsin wanted to do by making six tackles for loss. If teams can get Wisconsin into second- or third-and-long situations, they are at a decided advantage, The Badgers passing game has been inconsistent under Graham Mertz.
Badgers understand their task
As strong as Wisconsin has been defensively, it’s allowed 30 points or more in five of the last six meetings with the Buckeyes. So maybe it can slow them down, but there hasn’t been much evidence that the Badgers can outright stop them.
Wisconsin may need to get out of its comfort zone and go to more of a 2-4-5 look, as it does against teams that like to spread the ball around. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the best at finding weaknesses in an offense, and swapping out a man up front for an extra defender in the secondary is often the magic tonic.
Wisconsin doesn’t blitz a ton but will bring a linebacker off the edge on occasion to disrupt the quarterback.
“Any time a quarterback has time or is comfortable, the world is a little bit easier for them,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I think it comes down to all 11 guys got to do their part. In those moments, someone has to win the matchup.”
Chryst can’t simply hope to line up and beat the Buckeyes because he’s at a talent deficit. He and Leonhard will need to bring their A-games in terms of play-calling and keeping Ohio State off-balance.
“If you are doing something to take away something or make it harder on something, he knows where the cheats are,” Chryst said of Day’s ability to dial up the right play at the right moment. “It’s sound, very good football. Credit to him, I think that’s what’s impressive. It’s what he allows them to do, and he built it.”
Wisconsin has bothered quarterbacks this season, limiting opponents to a 52.4 completion percentage and only one touchdown. The Badgers have also intercepted seven passes, but they know the competition ratchets up against the Buckeyes.
“It’s one thing (to say) this is their scheme,” Chryst said. “But the players understand it and you see that. It allows them to truly go out and play, and they do it very well. We will certainly have to play our best game of the season.”
Buckeyes hope to black out Badgers
Ohio State is becoming a prime-time fixture on Saturday nights, and with good reason. It’s opener against Notre Dame was the highest rated game of weekend, and last weekend’s against Toledo was fifth among games on broadcast networks.
It isn’t always the most convenient for players and coaches because they are waiting all day for a game, but it does help with atmosphere.
“It’s been great for recruiting,” Day said. “I do like when noon games are over at about 4:30 and you can go home and enjoy the rest of the day. The atmosphere in a night game is unmatched.”
Ohio State is going to an alternate jersey for this contest, choosing its “blackout” look – black helmet with red buckeye leaves, black jersey with red numbers and black pants with a red stripe. That kind of gimmickry is typically saved for big opponents, and though they aren’t quite up to par of previous seasons, Wisconsin fits the bill. OSU is 3-0 in their “blackout” outfits and wore them last in a 2019 win over Michigan State.
Ohio State said it is 25-7 all-time when wearing alternate uniforms.