Ohio State has reached its one and only bye week for the regular season, and its significance may be greater than ever.
The Buckeyes (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) are coming off a huge win over the previously undefeated Illinois Fighting Illini in which they held Ron Zook's offense to just seven points and is the second team this year to keep it from compiling at least 473 total yards (285).
Not only does this victory look nice on the stat sheet, but it was imperative to keep driving this young squad forward, especially with three losses halfway into the season.
However, OSU will find itself in its toughest matchup thus far—and most likely the entire year—as it takes on Wisconsin in the Horseshoe next week. The Badgers are currently undefeated (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) and ranked No. 6 in the BCS Standings. Their offense scores 50.2 points weekly (No. 1 in the NCAA) and they allow just under 10 points per game (No. 3).
The outcome doesn't look good for Ohio State. With the way we have seen the Bucks play during their losses to Miami (FL), Michigan State and Nebraska (heck, OSU looked bad vs. Toledo), people are worried of a potential blowout in Columbus, favoring the Badgers.
But there is hope.
Ohio State has won two-straight against Wisconsin at home and will be well-rested. The Badgers are going on the road to face Michigan State for their first true road game of the season this weekend and will not yet be acclimated to having back-to-back away visits.
If the Badgers lose Saturday in East Lansing, it gives Luke Fickell the possibility of facing a vulnerable team.
It would be a huge opportunity to skyrocket in the Big Ten's Leaders division.
However, if the Buckeyes want this chance, there are three things that need to be focal points during the bye week.
This is quite the intriguing contest.
Michigan State's defense has proven to be top-notch this season, holding four of their six opponents to seven points or less, including allowing just seven to the Buckeyes. The Spartans are heading into this week's battle after a 28-14 beat down of Michigan standout QB Denard Robinson, holding him to 165 yards of total offense.
Kirk Cousins is an NFL prototype at quarterback and is the leader of the team. He hasn't put up outstanding numbers in 2011, but has done enough to reach a 5-1 record and is 18-5 in the months of September-October.
Last year Sparty defeated the Badgers 34-24, scoring 20 points in the first half and forcing Wisconsin to throw the ball early. This created problems for former QB Scott Tolzien, who finished 11-of-25 for 127 yards and a touchdown. James White and John Clay combined for 178 yards on the ground, but off just 27 carries. That's well under the minimum of rushing attempts Bret Bielema likes to have, but he had no choice.
Now he has Heisman candidate Russell Wilson, who will be the difference in 2011's matchup between the schools. Wilson has been the world's eighth wonder for Wisconsin's offense, passing for over 1,500 yards while throwing 14 TDs to just one INT. He's also averaging 7.6 yards per rush.
But let me reiterate here that Michigan State's defense is phenomenal. Seriously, in any aspect you can think of, the Spartans are amongst the best of the best.
Their secondary has allowed just 715 yards through the air (119.1 ypg) and hasn't had a game where the opposing QB has passed for over 168 yards and one touchdown.
Teams are averaging just 2.2 yards per carry against MSU's front seven, finding the end zone just three times throughout a six-game span.
It will be interesting to see what game plan Wisconsin goes with this weekend, but it's hard to believe it won't be successful. Still, there's still plenty of room for bumps in the road.
Also, it is necessary that the Buckeyes take as many notes as possible, especially during the times (if any) that the Badgers struggle. Exploiting any and all weakness will be a must in Week 9.
Okay, so this is a little broad. But we all know Ohio State isn't going to be able to go 1-of-4 for 17 yards in the passing game and beat the Wisconsin Badgers. Fickell may like to think that, but it's just not going to happen.
The Buckeyes ran the ball 51 times last week against Illinois (92.7 percent of the total plays) for 211 yards. Dan Herron averaged 5.0 yards per carry in his first day back for the scarlet and gray and scored for the first time since last season's Sugar Bowl. Ohio State set the tone early and ultimately dominated the game on the ground, chalking up four yard gains on the spot.
However, OSU needs Braxton Miller to "let'er fly" next week (hopefully he had already been doing so this past week) and get more involved with the pass offense. Wisconsin has scored 182 points in the first half alone this season—double that of the Buckeyes' (91)—which means they like to get ahead early. Whether they like it or not, the Bucks' offense has to get familiar with the pass attack if they want to keep up on the scoreboard.
We all know Wisconsin is going to score.
Since becoming the starter in Week 4, Miller has completed 16-of-35 (45.7 percent) passes for 251 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. That's not even nine attempts per game.
He's 18-of-37 (48.6 percent) for 326 yards, three TDs and an INT in downs of at least eight yards to go, and is 15-of-24 (62.5 percent) with 239 yards and three strikes to the end zone during the second half.
Although he has been a dynamic scrambler, there's potential through his arm and we've seen signs of excellence in it. He needs to continue working with the receiving corps to build a strong chemistry.
Believe me, they'll need it when the Badgers show up in Columbus.
Russell Wilson can't score if he's not on the field, right?
It's simple, folks. The Buckeyes have to play keep-away from Wisconsin's offense if they want a shot at winning this thing. Ohio State's young and talented, but very raw defense is a mismatch for the three-headed monster of RBs Montee Ball, James White and QB Wilson. But if they control the time of possession with long, sustained (and successful) drives—Tresselball, if you will—they'll have a great chance of pulling it off.
Wisconsin holds on to the ball for a little over 31 minutes per game. Ohio State does much of the same, but in its three losses, it has lost the battle of possession by an average of 31:20 to 28:40.
This is mostly due to the fact that it completed a mere 31.7 percent on 3rd down conversions during these games.
It will need to orchestrate consistent drives, taking large chunks out of the clock and capitalizing in the red zone. The 3rd and short plays will be key, so if I'm Luke Fickell, I'm practicing these different scenarios over and over again throughout the week.
If the Buckeyes don't take advantage of the little things, it will be yet another long, agonizing day for OSU fans.