Big Ten Championship 2014: Preview, Predictions for Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 4, 2014

FILE - At left, in a Nov. 8, 2014, file photo, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen looks on during an NCAA college football game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. At right, in an Aug. 30, 2014, file photo, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer walks on the field in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Navy in Baltimore. Coaches and players say walk-ons like Ohio State’s Kosta Karageorge _ who was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014, are treated just as well as their highly recruited teammates. Meyer and Andersen, the opposing coaches in Saturday's Big Ten championship game, believe things have gotten better since their own walk-on experiences. Meyer walked on at Cincinnati in the 1980s at the same time that Anderson was walking on at Ricks College. Andersen said he tries to make sure walk-ons are treated the same as his scholarship players. (AP Photo/File)
Uncredited/Associated Press

The Ohio State Buckeyes enter Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game with an outside shot to qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff. Standing in their way are the Wisconsin Badgers in what should be an epic matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Prior to the Buckeyes' victory over archrival Michigan last week, OSU figured to enter this conference-title clash with a big edge at the quarterback position. Unfortunately, J.T. Barrett, who did so well in Braxton Miller's stead, fractured his ankle versus the Wolverines.

That leaves former third-stringer Cardale Jones tasked with making his starting debut for the Scarlet and Gray on just about the most pressure-packed stage fathomable. Good luck, young man.

Below is an overall preview of Saturday's showdown, along with several predictions as to how Jones will fare, how the game will unfold and a final score projection.

Note: Statistics courtesy of NCAA.com.

2014 Big Ten Championship Game
DateMatchupTime (ET)TV
Saturday, Dec. 6No. 5 Ohio State (11-1) vs. No. 13 Wisconsin (10-2)8:17 p.m.FOX
Source: ESPN.com

Predictions

Ohio State Leans Heavily on Ezekiel Elliott

One may glean over the general statistics prior to the Big Ten title kickoff and be led to believe the Buckeyes have no chance to run on a Badgers defense that concedes just 3.03 yards per carry.

Bear in mind, though, that all of Wisconsin's ranked opponents that have run the ball well have been so one-dimensional that it could load the box and focus most of its efforts on clogging running lanes.

Wisconsin Badgers 2014 Ranked Opponents Results, Stats
DateOpponentResultOpp. Rush Offense (Current Rank)Opp. Pass Offense Rank (Current Rank)
Aug. 30No. 13 LSUL, 28-24219.5 ypg (30th)163.9 ypg (116th)
Nov. 15No. 16 NebraskaW, 59-24248.3 ypg (16th)198.0 ypg (92nd)
Nov. 29No. 18 MinnesotaW, 34-24224.6 ypg (27th)131.4 ypg (124th)
Dec. 6No. 5 Ohio State?257.4 ypg (12th)246.0 ypg (51st)
Source: ESPN.com

Jones must keep the Badgers secondary honest. With how dangerous the likes of Jalin Marshall, Michael Thomas and Devin Smith are in space, that shouldn't be too much of a challenge with the wide throwing windows the Buckeyes' spread system generates.

Then it's up to Elliott to pound the rock. OSU's strapping sophomore is an explosive, 225-pound ball-carrier who showed off his breakaway speed on a 44-yard touchdown run that sealed the Michigan win.

Big Ten Football notes how ball control will probably go a long way in determining the conference champion:

The Buckeyes' trademark read-option should also be effective, as Jones offers some serious might of his own at 6'5" and 250 pounds. It's going to be a far more physical festivity for Ohio State's offense than the speedier runners Wisconsin will deploy in an effort to knife through its adversary.

Don't be surprised if Elliott racks up close to 200 yards on the ground, depending on how often Jones keeps the ball. Based on how thin the Buckeyes are at QB, they'd probably prefer Elliott to be the predominant workhorse as is.

Melvin Gordon Continues to Shine

As bruising and toll-exacting both Elliott and Jones should be on Wisconsin's front seven, the big Badgers offensive line should do its fair share of brute-force combat in the trenches.

That will allow the likes of Gordon—holder of the NCAA single-game rushing record for one week, as outlined in the video above—to use his electric speed to rip off yards in chunks.

Elliott couldn't help but gush about Gordon, via OSU's official athletics department Twitter:

It doesn't seem to matter what opponents do. All Gordon does is find the end zone with regularity to bail out an odd, two-QB system that prevents Wisconsin from being a truly elite team.

Ohio State is just 40th in rush defense, so it figures to have a tough time dealing with arguably the best tailback in the game. The key will come down to stopping Tanner McEvoy on quarterback keepers to diminish the multifaceted nature of the Badgers' rushing attack.

Should Gordon not have success, Corey Clement is also a force to be reckoned with, as he's compiled 830 yards rushing and eight TDs of his own. Wisconsin's backfield depth will keep both primary backs fresh, contributing to a tight contest.

Cardale Jones Upstages Wisconsin QBs, Leads Buckeyes to Win

COLLEGE PARK, MD - OCTOBER 04:  Quarterback Cardale Jones #12 of the Ohio State Buckeyes hurdles safety Anthony Nixon #20 of the Maryland Terrapins during the fourth quarter of Ohio State's 52-24 win at Byrd Stadium on October 4, 2014 in College Park, Mar
Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

It's amazing to ponder that Jones, despite the huge stakes, such little experience and prior status as the No. 3 option on the depth chart, may be superior to the Badgers' two best signal-callers.

But it isn't too much of a stretch. McEvoy, who had played safety for Wisconsin the year prior, beat out previous incumbent Joel Stave in a QB competition before the 2014 campaign commenced.

McEvoy is now deployed as a rushing specialist because he has some of the least natural accuracy you'll ever see out of a college quarterback.

Ohio State can almost always presume McEvoy won't be airing it out when he's on the field, considering he has 21 carries and one passing attempt in his past four games. Meanwhile, Stave has been serviceable but not spectacular despite being complemented by an amazing runner in Gordon.

The good news for the Badgers is that Stave is coming off a big performance in the team's most recent win over Minnesota (11-of-18 passing, 215 yards and two touchdowns). However, he'll face a far tougher pass rush led by Buckeyes star Joey Bosa, as OSU ranks tied for 11th in the nation with 37 sacks.

Jones is facing a fourth-ranked scoring defense in Wisconsin, but as mentioned above, he'll have Elliott to lean on and brings his own blend of power and athleticism as a ball-carrier. It's feasible to believe that Ohio State will beat the Badgers at their own game, though it will be close thanks to Gordon's brilliance.

The deck is stacked against Jones. Even a decent outing under the circumstances may be skewed due to the difficult challenge Wisconsin's defense poses.

Although the numbers may not be all too aesthetically pleasing in the end, that Jones could come in and finish off a Big Ten title would have to help the Buckeyes' cause to ascend one spot into the Top Four.

It's on Ohio State to keep Gordon in relative check, make sure McEvoy doesn't get loose on the ground and to apply pressure on Stave to force turnovers and grind out a win in Indy. Based on the Buckeyes' better all-around talent on both sides of the ball and superior plus-five to minus-two turnover margin, they get the winning nod.

Prediction: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 24

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