Biggest Things to Watch for in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game
As they chase a third straight league title, the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes are heavy favorites to beat the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State has a little extra motivation for this rematch from the regular season, though: A College Football Playoff berth is at stake. The Buckeyes might reach the CFP no matter the result, but a victory ensures their place in the four-team field.
Wisconsin knows the challenge it's about to face, considering the late-October matchup ended with a 38-7 Buckeyes win.
"They definitely haven't gotten worse. That's for sure," linebacker Zack Baun said, per Keith Jenkins of the Associated Press.
According to Caesars, Ohio State is a 16.5-point favorite for the championship clash, which kicks off at 8 p.m. ET. Bleacher Report has you covered with a full preview of what to expect Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
When Wisconsin Is on Offense
It all starts with Jonathan Taylor.
That's not a stunning statement. Anyone who's watched Wisconsin over the last three seasons could tell you that. Nevertheless, a running back with 5,932 rushing yards and 54 total touchdowns during his career deserves to be the centerpiece of the discussion.
However, he has not enjoyed much success against the Buckeyes. In two previous showdowns, Taylor has mustered just 93 yards on 35 carries with four receptions for 35 yards.
"Establish the run" is a buzzy phrase, but Wisconsin should work from the other direction. The simple truth is Ohio State has more respect for Taylor than quarterback Jack Coan. If the Buckeyes must respect the passing game, they won't be able to devote quite as much attention to stopping Taylor.
While top receiver Quintez Cephus is a regular contributor, Wisconsin needs A.J. Taylor—who is questionable with a right leg injury—and tight end Jake Ferguson to provide a few big early catches.
The Badgers also have an end-around for Kendric Pryor that crushed Michigan in 2017 and Minnesota last week. Ohio State will likely be ready for that, but some trickery may be necessary.
Otherwise, the result probably won't be much different than the blowout in Columbus earlier this season.
When Ohio State Is on Defense
Badgers coach Paul Chryst understands the obstacles Ohio State presents.
"It's a really, really talented defense, and I think they've done a great job in coaching it," he said, according to Nathan Baird of Cleveland.com. "It plays to their strengths."
Under new co-coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison, the Buckeyes have started to mix in zone coverages. They previously leaned heavily on man-to-man press coverage, but the shift has helped the secondary return to its lockdown ways.
Ohio State has allowed an FBS-low 5.2 yards per pass attempt while intercepting 15 passes. Defensive backs Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Shaun Wade and Jordan Fuller all have NFL futures.
Ah, right, Chase Young.
It sure doesn't hurt having the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year up front. Young ended the regular season with a school-record 16.5 sacks, four of which happened in that victory over Wisconsin. The Badgers simply had no answer for him.
Both history and recent performance say the Buckeyes will contain Taylor. As long as they avoid a letdown against Coan and the passing attack, Ohio State should control this part of the game.
When Ohio State Is on Offense
Balanced and explosive.
That's the short description of an Ohio State offense averaging 280.6 yards on the ground and 253.7 through the air. Additionally, the Buckeyes lead the FBS at 49.9 points per game and rank fifth nationally with 84 gains of 20-plus yards.
Georgia transfer Justin Fields has proved himself every bit the dual-threat superstar he was projected to become as a 5-star prospect. While throwing just one interception in 277 attempts, he's collected 3,124 yards of offense and totaled 47 touchdowns.
Fields isn't totally healthy after a couple of recent injury scares regarding his knee, but he's expected to play.
The sophomore is a pass-first quarterback in a creative system that schemes downfield shots. His mobility forces opponents to respect all downs as a run situation, yet the surrounding talent can take advantage of defenses that devote too much attention up front.
J.K. Dobbins is an All-American candidate with 1,857 scrimmage yards and 21 total scores. Leading receiver Chris Olave has 705 yards and 11 touchdowns, while senior wideouts K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor have combined for 14 scores. Key freshman Garrett Wilson has earned a bigger role and just recorded his first 100-yard game Saturday against Michigan.
Trying to combat Ohio State's talent amid an unpredictable, well-spaced offense is a major challenge.
When Wisconsin Is on Defense
When the teams met during the regular season, Wisconsin held the Buckeyes scoreless through the first quarter and didn't surrender a touchdown until the final drive of the second frame.
This defense is capable of limiting Ohio State.
Buf if Wisconsin doesn't score while the defense is playing well, the effort will be wasted. Ohio State has done a tremendous job with in-game adjustments this season, best evidenced by a remarkable 224-23 scoring edge in the second quarter.
So, the Badgers need quick points. The best way is turnovers, of course, and Ohio State is actually vulnerable in that regard. The Buckeyes have lost 12 fumbles. Only a handful of teams have ceded possession more often that way—granted, Wisconsin is one—but the Badgers also rank 15th nationally with 13 forced fumbles.
The most likely candidates for that disruption are Zack Baun and Chris Orr, who both have 11.5 sacks.
Wisconsin needs more than a two-man impact, though. Defensive linemen Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand have combined for just three sacks but each played their best game of the season—heck, maybe of their careers—last week against Minnesota.
Although the secondary has struggled a bit lately, the back end of the defense can be sturdy. Yet if the Badgers don't get regular pressure on Fields, he'll extend plays and render good coverage useless.
Trailing 10-0 in October, the Badgers needed a spark. They found it with a disastrous punt from Drue Chrisman that Alex Smith might've tipped, and took over at OSU's 30-yard line. Three plays later, Wisconsin scored its only touchdown of the game.
Yes, the Buckeyes controlled the matchup from there, but that play is reminder of the potential impact special teams can have.
Wisconsin's Aron Cruickshank returned a kickoff for a score at Nebraska and should have chances Saturday. Ohio State's 22.8 percent touchback rate is 109th in the nation, though it's a calculated risk with a coverage unit ceding just 18.2 yards per return.
Chrisman, despite his October shank, is averaging a superb 44.1 yards per punt while the Buckeyes have ceded 32 total punt-return yards. Wisconsin doesn't give up much on punts either, but Anthony Lotti's 39.6-yard average is 85th nationally.
While the field-position battle is important for the Badgers to increase their margin for error, that won't be easily done.
Ohio State kicker Blake Haubeil is 8-of-10 on field goals with a long of 55, and he's converted all 79 extra points. Wisconsin, meanwhile, seems to have switched from Collin Larsh to Zach Hintze after the latter drilled a 62-yard kick against Purdue.
Both teams should be relatively comfortable with their special teams units, but Ohio State holds an edge in this category too.