The 12-0 and No. 4-ranked Wisconsin Badgers enter Saturday’s Big Ten championship game as an underdog to No. 8 Ohio State.
It’s the first time all season the Badgers haven’t been favored in a game, at least as of this writing.
As many times as these two teams have gone at it, there is one game that sticks in the craw of Badgers fans to date. The numbers 59 and 0 seem to ring an uncomfortable bell. That is what happened to Wisconsin the last, and only, time these two teams met in the Big Ten championship game.
Knowing the way Wisconsin deals with things, that game four years ago means little to the players and coaches. First off, none of the current coaching staff was there and secondly, the only players who remember that feeling following the game.
But, this could easily be the biggest Big Ten championship game in its brief history. A win by Wisconsin and its College Football Playoff time for the folks from Madison. A win by Ohio State and that dream ends for the Badgers, while the Buckeyes could have themselves a case for the playoff once again.
So, with all of that on the line, how do the Badgers pull off the win on Saturday and head towards a national championship? Let’s look at 5 keys to getting a victory.
Keep the Game Close Early
If there is one thing we know about the Badgers, it is that they are at their best in the second half of games. But, if they are down big heading in to the half, will it be too much to overcome? Ohio State’s season has certainly showed that could be the case.
OSU has been getting off to fast starts and killing games off early all season long. They are outscoring opponents 129 to 45 in the first quarter and are even better in the second quarter (180-69) of games. Luckily for the Badgers, opposing teams have struggled to score a lot — period.
Wisconsin has to flip the script a bit on the Buckeyes and force them to not score early, and that’s where they’ve excelled all season long. Opponents have only scored 86 points in the first half all season long, or an average of 7.1 points per half, per game.
Clearly something is going to give here on the scoreboard. If Wisconsin wants to win, it has to keep the Buckeyes offense in check to allow the offense to grind things out to set up the kill shot in the second half.
Get Pressure on J.T. Barrett Early
As we continue to progress throughout the week, it seems more and more likely that injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is at least going to give it a go on Saturday night. Does that mean he plays? If there’s a will, there’s likely a way for Barrett to get in at this point in time. Regardless of his health, one thing that has worked in the Buckeyes’ two losses this season has been pressure on Barrett.
Now, that pressure doesn’t have to result in sacks right away. He is still sometimes rattled when pressured in the pocket or when passing lanes aren’t totally open. If that pressure can lead to mistakes, whether it is missed throws or interceptions, Barrett can be thrown off his game. There’s also the fact that his mobility will be severely limited.
Wisconsin has been really good at jumping on weaknesses in their opponents game and there’s no doubt that Barrett’s relative health is a weakness that needs to be tested by Jim Leonhard and Co. If they can get after him, make him immobile, Ohio State’s offense is a sitting duck.
Limit Ohio State’s Big Plays in the Run Game
Ohio State comes in as one of the best rushing teams in the country, something Badgers fans should be very familiar with themselves. One of the big ways the Buckeyes have gotten to the top of the Big Ten rushing heap is due to big plays. OSU has put up 31 plays of 20-plus yards on the ground this year, and that should be a scary number to see.
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has been a dynamic play maker for them, but he isn’t ‘the only one capable of getting loose in the run game.
On the flip side, this is an area the Badgers have been highly successful in all season long against really good offensive lines as well. UW has given up just seven plays of 20-plus yards on the ground all season long. That number is fourth in the country to put it in perspective for you.
Limiting OSU’s ability to hit the big-gainer on the ground means J.T. Barrett the passer comes in to play. While he has been having a good season as a thrower, Wisconsin’s secondary against that Ohio State pass game plays right in to the Badgers hands. Of course, that is all predicated on Barrett actually being healthy enough to go in this game.
Score a Rushing Touchdown
This should be a bit obvious, but the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the Ohio State defense. When the opposition is getting in to the end zone via the ground there’s a good chance at winning. Even when the Buckeyes limited Oklahoma to just 104 yards rushing, the Sooners were able to get a rushing touchdown. That touchdown was a huge one too, as Jordan Smallwood ran in from just three yards out, but put Oklahoma up 31-13 with just 9:26 to play in the game. It was lights out for the Buckeyes chances after that.
Wisconsin’s formula has been to get the ground game going, open up the pass game a bit and score in multiple ways. It seems like, and is, an easy formula. But, no one has really been able to stop it all season long. Wisconsin comes in to this game trailing only OSU on the ground in the Big Ten — averaging 243.2 yards per game and scoring 27 times via the run game.
Perhaps the best bit of news is that the Buckeyes stingy rush defense has a major flaw — big plays. So far this season, OSU has given up 20 runs of over 20 yards. Wisconsin comes in having put up 25 of those and has had 85 rushes of over 10 yards on the year as well. With Jonathan Taylor more than capable of hitting the big play, this could be an area to exploit if you are Wisconsin.
Alex Hornibrook Avoids the Turnovers
Earlier this month we noted that Alex Hornibrook, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media, would determine the success or failure of the Badgers getting in to the College Football Playoff. He’s responded with some of his best football down the stretch, including his first non-interception thrown game in the Big Ten portion of the season, last weekend.
Over the last four weeks of the season, Hornibrook has thrown eight touchdowns to just four interceptions. He’s also put up 146 yards per game and has completed 60 percent or more of his passes in all but one of those games.
Will the increasing confidence help or will he revert in to the timid quarterback that is afraid of pressure? Ultimately, the Badgers likely can’t afford to spot the Buckeyes points via turnover and Hornibrook has been prone to that all season unfortunately. If he can keep a goose-egg on the turnover front, Wisconsin could be a very good position to win this game.