Wisconsin Badgers vs. Ohio State Buckeyes Complete Game Preview
It's only Week 5, but this is arguably the biggest game on the schedule, not only for No. 4 Ohio State and No. 23 Wisconsin, but for the entire Big Ten as well.
While the implications have been downplayed by both teams' head coaches, there are high stakes on the line. The winner essentially jumps out to a two-game advantage in the Big Ten Leaders Division, going one-up in the loss column and owning the tiebreaker for the division crown.
There's obviously a long way to go in Big Ten conference play, so such an important matchup this early in the season is almost a travesty. But it also means both teams may have time to recover from a defeat with seven games remaining on their schedules.
The Badgers (3-1) have actually already begun conference play, defeating Purdue, 41-10, in Madison, Wisc. The Buckeyes (4-0) finished off non-conference play with the 76-point slaughtering of Florida A&M.
Recent history in this rivalry has not been kind to the Badgers. Ever since Wisconsin knocked off No. 1 Ohio State in 2010, it has lost two hotly contested games to the Buckeyes—one on a Hail Mary pass in Columbus, Ohio, in 2011, and the other in overtime at Camp Randall last season.
Ohio State is postseason-eligible, so the Badgers will be hard-pressed to get away with a loss this time around.
We break down the players to watch, keys to victory and offer a prediction for the showdown at The Shoe.
Day, Time: Saturday at 7 p.m. CT
Place: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Spread: Ohio State -7 (via Bovada.lv)
Wisconsin's Keys to Victory
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Contain Braxton Miller
The numbers that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller put up against the Badgers last season are almost unfathomable. A Heisman Trophy candidate entering 2013, Miller went 10-of-18 for 97 yards through the air while rushing 23 times for just 48 yards last November in Madison.
The Badgers' front seven which basically manhandled Miller last year is back in full force and might even be better because the formula for shutting down Miller is right there on Wisconsin's tape.
Miller isn't a certainty for Saturday, having missed back-to-back weeks due to a left knee injury, but since he and backup Kenny Guiton run the same offense, Wisconsin's defense should know how to prepare for either.
Find Success in the Passing Game
This will be a true test for the Badgers' rushing attack. Not only does everyone know what Wisconsin will be trying to do on offense, but the Buckeyes come in having only allowed 79.8 rushing yards per game to rank No. 9 in the FBS.
While the Buckeyes will look to stop a Wisconsin running game that racks up nearly 350 yards a contest, making them respect the pass could open things up for Melvin Gordon and James White. Ohio State has shown some vulnerability on the back end of the defense, allowing just over 200 passing yards per game.
Don't Give Up the Big Play
Considering the inexperience in Wisconsin's secondary—we saw it on full display against Arizona State when Taylor Kelly threw for 352 yards against the Badgers—it might be in its best interest to play more conservatively.
The backfield is undoubtedly the biggest area of weakness in Wisconsin's defense. Ohio State has more speed this season than last year and talented wideouts in Devin Smith and Corey Brown. That is all the more reason why the Badgers' secondary should do all it can to avoid getting burned.
Allowing a big play could swing momentum or be the difference in a game between two evenly matched teams.
Ohio State's Keys to Victory
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Shut down Jared Abbrederis
Bradley Roby, one of the nation's best cornerbacks, will look to lock down one of the Big Ten's best receivers in Jared Abbrederis. He is by far the most-targeted receiver by quarterback Joel Stave, and while Stave may appear to have a one-track mind, it doesn't help that a true No. 2 threat has yet to emerge.
If the Buckeyes are able to hold Wisconsin's running game in check, as well as keep Abbrederis from having his usual impact on a game, the Badgers will be in all sorts of trouble. Roby, an All-American as a sophomore, will perhaps have the most important task of anyone on that Ohio State defense.
Make Wisconsin Beat You Through the Air
If Ohio State is able to contain Wisconsin's running attack, that means the pressure will be on quarterback Joel Stave, who has struggled at times this season, to beat the Buckeyes with his arm. Stave has thrown three interceptions this season. Considering the level of competition that he has faced aside from Arizona State, he shouldn't be missing as many throws as he has through four games.
A majority of Ohio State's focus needs to be on shutting down Melvin Gordon and James White, because that would leave the game in the hands of Stave. That's not the situation Wisconsin wants to be placed in on Saturday night.
Look to Shred Inexperienced Secondary
Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller is best known for his dual-threat ability, but going up against a stingy front seven, Miller will need to show he can throw the football downfield against a raw Wisconsin secondary.
Last season against the Badgers, Miller couldn't do much of anything against a strong Wisconsin defense. Even if it has grown stronger at defensive line and linebacker, the Badgers' secondary has taken a step back, returning just one starter from last year while relying on a true freshman to play heavy minutes at cornerback.
Whether it is Braxton or Kenny Guiton under center for Ohio State—and we could see some of both—throwing the football effectively will be a must.
Players to Watch on Wisconsin
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The sophomore quarterback hasn't performed up to standards so far in 2013. In Wisconsin's only challenging game, Stave managed to complete just 50 percent of his passes.
He needs to play better for the Badgers to have a chance at pulling off the upset and that means Stave must connect on more throws, avoid staring down his intended targets and spread the wealth among his receivers.
Again, there's not going to be many weeks where Gordon isn't a player to watch because of his scintillating speed and flat-out ability to bust a big play at any moment. He led the Badgers in rushing against Purdue and leads the FBS in rushing yards and yards per carry.
That is no small feat, especially because he is in a platoon with senior tailback James White. With the Badgers splitting both out wide at times, that gives Gordon more opportunities to impact the game, but going up against a tough run defense will face Gordon with his tallest challenge yet.
It's going to take an inspired, collective effort from the Badgers' secondary to put a stop to Ohio State's efficient passing attack, but there's one player you always need to account for from Wisconsin's defense—Chris Borland.
The All-Big Ten linebacker has 10 more tackles than any other Badger and is the ringleader of Wisconsin's impressive front seven. He'll be a key component in Wisconsin's efforts to slow down the read-option offense and Ohio State's running game in general, which once again features formerly suspended Carlos Hyde.
Players to Watch on Ohio State
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It's not going to be easy for Wisconsin's receivers to get away from cornerback Bradley Roby, specifically Jared Abbrederis.
Roby has been clocked at 4.3 in the 40-yard dash and can expect to be taken early in next year's NFL draft. That is, if he chooses to leave school early since Roby is only a junior.
He led the nation in passes defended last season while earning All-American honors. Fellow Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant has been no slouch in his first year of starting for Ohio State either. Limiting Abbrederis essentially nullifies Wisconsin's passing game, allowing the Buckeyes to focus more on the Badgers' formidable rushing attack.
Having missed two-plus games with a knee injury, Braxton Miller is expected to return to play against Wisconsin. If he's healthy enough to suit up, he'll get the start and it will be interesting to see how Miller reacts against a stiff opponent after sitting on the couch for two weeks.
It will also be intriguing to see how much, if at all, we see of backup Kenny Guiton, who has thrown for 13 touchdowns already this season in Miller's absence. Each player is listed as a starter at quarterback in the team's Week 5 depth chart.
Coming off a knee injury, just how effective can Miller be with his legs against a defense that shut him down 10 months ago?
Listen, the Ohio State defense has multiple top-of-the-line recruits and soon-to-be NFLers. We mentioned Roby, and you can also look at linebacker Ryan Shazier. But sophomore defensive end Noah Spence is a force to be reckoned with and will be a handful for Wisconsin's offensive line.
Spence leads the Buckeyes in sacks (2.5) and tackles for a loss (5). While Spence will be an integral piece in slowing the Badgers' rushing attack, Wisconsin's pass protection has struggled at times and that is where Spence could really do his damage if the Badgers are forced to go to the air often.
What They Are Saying
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"It is very much a game that I think our players and their players know that it's going to come down (to the finish)," Meyer said. "This will be a classic game."
Kenny Guiton threw six touchdown passes—all in the first half—against Florida A&M this week and appears to have the hot hand. However, Braxton Miller is 90 percent healthy according to Meyer:
I know Braxton, if he has a good week of practice, will start. We'll see how practice goes this week.
Meyer said he is wary of Wisconsin's backfield, tweeted Jesse Temple of FOX Sports Wisconsin:
I haven’t seen the whole country, but I can't imagine two better backs on the same team.
Ben Axelrod of BuckeyeSports.com noted that Meyer is singing the praises of the three-time defending Big Ten champion Badgers.
"In my opinion, they're the king of the Big Ten right now," Meyer said.
Meyer obviously has a lot of respect for Wisconsin, as well as the man who coaches the Badgers, long-time friend and former colleague Gary Andersen. Andersen dished that respect right back to Meyer and the No. 4 Buckeyes, via Badgernation.com:
Ohio State, obviously, a great team. Done tremendous things, we all know that. They're a talented crew. If you watch the tape from a year ago to now, it's obvious that they made an emphasis to recruit speed in a lot of different areas on the offensive side of the ball.
As far as preparing for either Miller or Guiton at quarterback, Andersen didn't feel it mattered who lined up under center for the Buckeyes:
It seems to be the question that everybody wants to talk about, but either quarterback can run the offense. Doesn't change our approach whatsoever with whichever quarterback is playing.
Naturally, and almost comically, Andersen downplayed the significance of this game.
"This is far from a championship game. It'll be just one game in the conference race at the end."
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Both teams can put up points and both teams have talented, tenacious defenses. Both coaches are also very familiar with one another, so it sure looks like we're set up for a stalemate in Columbus, but there's one factor that will make the difference—special teams.
The Badgers have had their woes in the kicking game with Kyle French, who always keeps them on edge in close games. In its last six games decided by seven points or less, Wisconsin is 0-6 and has been burned in special teams in a majority of those defeats.
Wisconsin will also be without return man Kenzel Doe this week, leaving true freshman Corey Clement and senior Kyle Zuleger with kick-return duties and Abbrederis back deep returning punts.
Ohio State's special teams features speed, speed and more speed in the return game with Corey Brown and Deontre Wilson. The Buckeyes also feature experience at kicker with senior Drew Basil, who has converted 75 percent of his career field goal attempts.
The keys to victory are laid out in plain sight for the entire country to see, let alone these two squads. They each know what it will take to come home with a victory, and no matter how well they execute, a botched kick here or a shanked field goal there might be all it takes to tip the scale.
Ohio State has the slight edge in special teams, so therefore will win by a slight margin against a Wisconsin team that can't seem to get over the mental barrier in close games.
Prediction: Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 21