Ohio State vs. Wisconsin: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
Ohio State's journey to a potential College Football Playoff bid will take one of its most daunting turns this Saturday when it heads to Camp Randall Stadium for a prime-time showdown with Wisconsin.
The No. 2 Buckeyes (5-0) have steamrolled through their schedule to date, beating their first five opponents by an average of 41.6 points. But the No. 8 Badgers (4-1) should be well-rested coming off a bye week and plenty angry after stewing over their 14-7 loss to Michigan in Week 5.
Will Camp Randall be as unkind to Ohio State as it has been in the past? The Buckeyes needed overtime to beat Wisconsin 21-14 in 2012, and two years earlier, the Badgers knocked off the top-ranked Buckeyes in a 31-18 upset.
But the last time these two squared off, Ohio State clobbered Wisconsin in a 59-0 thrashing in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game. The Badgers will look to get revenge this Saturday, and they'll have one of the most hostile environments in college football behind them.
Time: 8 p.m. ET
Place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison Wisconsin
Spread: Ohio State (-10.5), per Odds Shark
Ohio State's Keys to Victory
Run the ball...somehow
When things get tough for Ohio State's offense, Urban Meyer leans on his run game.
That was the case when J.T. Barrett struggled through the air against Tulsa and Indiana, and it's a strategy that has worked to this point in the season.
Wisconsin will surely make things tough on the Buckeyes offense, as its defense ranks fourth nationally in points allowed and 11th in yards allowed. And the unit, with its big and active front seven, is particularly stout against the run, giving up an average of 90.4 rushing yards per game and 3.1 yards per rushing attempt.
Ohio State's rushing attack has been one of the most explosive in the country, checking in behind only New Mexico and Army nationally with 323.6 yards per game. Running back Mike Weber leads the Big Ten with 113.2 yards per game, and he's complemented perfectly by Curtis Samuel, who's averaging 82 rushing yards per game.
Get after Alex Hornibrook
Ohio State's defensive line returned only one starter this year and had to replace superstar defensive end Joey Bosa, who was selected as the No. 3 overall pick by the San Diego Chargers in last year's draft.
That kind of attrition would cripple most teams, but the Buckeyes have reloaded very well and have a solid rotation that's applying a lot of pressure to opponents' backfields.
That will be a big key when the Buckeyes face off against Wisconsin.
Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook was coming off his best collegiate performance when his team traveled to play Michigan. The week before, he sliced through the Michigan State secondary, completing 16 of 26 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown.
But the Wolverines ramped up the pressure and flustered Hornibrook, who connected on just 36 percent of his passes for 88 yards while throwing three interceptions.
Ohio State will look to fluster Hornibrook in similar fashion.
Wisconsin's Keys to Victory
Get the home crowd up early
Wisconsin has one of the best home-field advantages in all of college football, which will be a huge advantage when it hosts a young Ohio State team on Saturday.
The Buckeyes were supposed to be tested by a semi-hostile crowd in Week 3 when it traveled to Oklahoma for a prime-time bout with the Sooners. But some of the game's luster was lost when Bob Stoops' squad dropped its season opener to Houston, and when the Buckeyes scored the game's first 14 points, almost all of the fight was knocked out of the home crowd.
So the Buckeyes and their 16 new starters have to see a truly hostile crowd for 60 minutes of game time. For the Badgers to achieve that, they need to throw the first punch and get on the board before J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State offense.
Cut Corey Clement loose
There were high hopes for Corey Clement when he took over as Wisconsin's featured back. He was an explosive backup for Melvin Gordon, running for 949 yards and nine touchdowns as a reserve in 2014.
But he has yet to post even similar numbers as a starter. His 2015 campaign was derailed by nagging injuries, and so far this season, he's struggling to find lanes. The senior is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry and has only eclipsed the 100-yard mark once this season, when he ran the ball 21 times against Akron.
With a long run of just 27 yards this year, the Badgers need to find a way to cut him loose against a fierce Buckeyes front seven.
Ohio State Players to Watch
Curtis Samuel has been Ohio State's most productive playmaker this season, leading the team with 23 receptions and 345 receiving yards while serving as the perfect complement to Mike Weber in the running game, running 50 times for 410 yards and six total touchdowns.
Despite his big-play ability, the Buckeyes curiously failed to feature him in their closer-than-expected win over Indiana last week. The game-breaking junior didn't touch the ball once in the first quarter and only registered nine carries (for 82 yards and a touchdown) and had no catches against the Hoosiers.
Facing a defense as talented as Wisconsin's, on the road no less, Ohio State can't afford to go away from its biggest home run hitter.
The anchor of Ohio State's defense will be in the spotlight against Wisconsin.
That is almost always the case when the Buckeyes play the Badgers. With Paul Chryst's run-heavy offense, the game-within-the-game is the battle in the trenches. The last time these two teams met, defensive tackle Michael Bennett was an absolute monster, recording four tackles for loss and two sacks in the historic 59-0 shutout in the 2014 Big Ten title game.
Michael Hill has been solid on the interior for the Buckeyes despite putting up modest numbers with 10 total tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. Ohio State will need him to elevate his game on Saturday night and be the kind of disruptive force that Bennett was two years ago.
Wisconsin Players to Watch
Wisconsin had a week off to fix a passing attack that completely withered against Michigan in Week 5.
The Badgers managed just 88 yards through the air against the Wolverines' top-ranked secondary, but they're set to face a similarly stout unit when they go up against the Buckeyes' No. 5-ranked pass defense that's allowing just 148.6 passing yards per game.
That's why Wisconsin needs a big game from Jazz Peavy.
The 6'1" junior was showing up big for the Badgers after their upset of LSU and was at his best against the Spartans, hauling in four catches for 96 yards. But Wisconsin's leading receiver was an absolute non-factor against the Wolverines, registering just one catch for seven yards.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook and the Wisconsin offense will have to find ways to get Peavy the ball.
The last time the Buckeyes had to play against a Watt, it didn't go well.
It was the 2010 matchup that pinned top-ranked Ohio State against No. 18 Wisconsin. J.J. Watt was an emerging force at defensive end and broke out against the Buckeyes, registering two sacks and three tackles for loss in the 31-18 upset.
Six years later, the Buckeyes will need to find an answer for J.J.'s younger brother, T.J. Watt.
T.J. plays outside linebacker but is just as much of a factor in the backfield, as he leads the Badgers with 7.5 tackles for loss. Most of his work comes at the expense of the quarterback, as he's registered 5.5 sacks through five games, which ranks fifth nationally.
The Badgers will likely put him on the right side so he can attack sophomore right tackle Isaiah Prince.
What They're Saying
Urban Meyer hasn't faced Wisconsin with Paul Cryst as its head coach, but he sees a familiar opponent when he puts on the Badgers tape, according to the team's official website:
Outstanding. The typical Wisconsin. I think it goes back to Coach Alvarez and what he's built up there. I think Coach Chryst -- I don't know him very well, but I can push play and see it's one of the best coached teams in the United States of America. Very good players. They have their niche.
Cryst is impressed with what he's seen from the Buckeyes defense, per D.J. Byrnes of Eleven Warriors:
It's a good scheme. It's a sound football scheme. They've got guys that play it well, and they're playing with confidence. They play fast and they get off blocks. They're keeping teams [out of the red zone]. They're doing things at the start of the drive to prevent teams from getting down the field. ... You can see why people are having a hard time scoring on them.
Ohio State's passing attack struggled against Indiana, and quarterback J.T. Barrett explained what needs to change when the Buckeyes face Wisconsin, according to Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors:
It's important because if you can't hit a deep ball then as a defense, they just sit on every route. Depend on a lot of short routes to get open but then if you pass and hit a deep ball, it opens up a lot of the offense. I didn't do a good job today completing the deep ball which is something I have to get better at.
A perfect 40-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Barrett to Curtis Samuel will put Ohio State up early, and a defensive score will seal the game late as the Buckeyes win a slugfest to remain unbeaten.
Both offenses will struggle to find a rhythm in a sloppy first quarter, but Barrett will find his after the first two drives. He'll finish with just 180 passing yards and a touchdown, but he'll do damage on the ground, running for 70 yards on 15 carries.
Mike Weber will do most of the damage as he takes his 20 carries for 100 yards and a touchdown. But outside of Barrett and Weber, the Badgers will do a good job of limiting Ohio State's bevy of playmakers.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook will have an up-and-down game, connecting on 60 percent of his passes for 200 yards and a touchdown, but two costly picks will ultimately be the difference in a 10-point Buckeyes win.
Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 17