Here we are again, the Wisconsin Badgers back in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Since the inception of the game four years ago, no team in the Big Ten has made more appearances in the game than Wisconsin. It will be the program’s third trip in the four-year history of the game, but this one feels a bit different.
For the first time, Wisconsin comes in as the favorite according to Vegas and a lot of pundits too. A lot of that has to do with the injury to OSU’s star quarterback J.T. Barrett, but it also has a lot to do with a Badger football team that has been humming along nicely ever since its loss to Northwestern in early October.
While the Badger program and many of its current players have been to Indy before, this is an all new experience for all but one member of the coaching staff. So, as the Badgers prepare for an old, but new tradition in Indy, how can they go about winning the game?
Let’s take a look at five areas that will affect UW’s chances of winning or losing.
Stick With the Run Game
It’s no secret to anyone that Wisconsin won’t win a football game if it can’t run the football. The good news is that no one has really been able to stop the Badgers from running well all season long. It’s the reason they lead the Big Ten and are behind only two triple-option offenses (Navy and Georgia Southern) on the national rushing list.
However, this game could be a challenge because of the athleticism and strength that Ohio State possesses on the defensive line. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see UW struggle early on to get much traction in the run game.
It’s also no secret that opposing teams want to make the Badgers one-dimensional and will sell out to stop the run game with eight or nine men in the box nearly all game long.
On Saturday, expect that to be the case again and that means UW may need to show some patience in the run game. Let the offensive line wear the Buckeyes down a bit and then him them in the mouth as the game goes along.
If Wisconsin tries to go to the air too much, and not go with Gordon and Clement on the ground then this could be a long game for the Badger faithful. UW needs to stick with the run game, even if it isn’t producing on the first few series’.
Force Cardale Jones to be One-dimensional
Ohio State isn’t likely to change much in the way of its offense just because Jones is in at quarterback. What they may do is take away some of the reads he needs to make pre-snap because of the lack of experience. It also means Jones is likely to want to prove he can run the football and make the proper read in the zone-run game.
While Jones may have a decent arm and some decent wheels on him, if I’m Dave Aranda I’m making him a one-dimensional drop back quarterback as much as possible. I’d rather jam him up in the run game and force him to make reads in the pass game than anything else.
The more one-dimensional you make a quarterback in a Tom Herman offense, the more chance you have to create issues and more importantly, turnovers. Look for the Badgers to force Jones in to being a more traditional quarterback and eliminate his effect on this game with his legs.
Make the 1st Tackle in Space
Over the last few weeks the Badgers defense has struggled with one area — open field tackling. That’s scary against an Ohio State team that loves to work with space and get the ball in to the open field quickly. Simply put, the secondary and linebackers have to make the first tackle happen.
UW can’t wait for the gang to arrive or it will be too little, too late. Just look at how many explosive touchdowns have happened all season long because OSU opponents failed to make the first tackle. Luckily guys like Darius Hillary, Vince Biegel and Michael Caputo have been very good most of this season in one-on-one situations like Ohio State will try to produce.
Caputo struggled a bit last week, but it sure sounded like he was going to be motivated by the one loss he had on Mitch Leidner’s late touchdown run off tackle. Look for UW to be up to the challenge in space, and look for them to know they all have to be assignment sure.
If Wisconsin is going to win this game, it can’t allow the edge or the wide receiver screens to be anything but a dud.
Win the Battle Up Front on Offense
The Wisconsin Badgers have easily the best overall offensive line in the Big Ten, blocking for a run game that is third in the country (334.3 yards per game) and having given up just nine sacks (also third in the country) all season long.
However, they’ll be going up against the best defensive line they’ve faced all season long and the newly crowned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Joey Bosa. UW can’t go in to this game thinking it will be easy to win the battle up front, or it will be a long night in Indianapolis for the O-line and the fans in the stands.
The Buckeyes aren’t just the Bosa show either, as Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington are strong players up the middle. In fact, that’s the area UW needs to win at the most. If they can get push up the middle and allow Gordon and Clement some time to read holes it could be a magical night for the Badgers’ run game.
Wisconsin has also struggled to get much going on short-yardage situations all season long. That’s a problem, because it’s an area that the Buckeyes have thrived in on the defensive side of the ball. UW hasn’t found the magic push in those situations, but it may need to on Saturday if it wants to win.
It may sound clichéd, but the truth is this game could come down to which offensive line is able to hold up better.
Use Play-Action Pass Game Early and Often
Last week the Badgers played one of the better secondaries in the Big Ten, and the play-action passing game gave the Gophs fits. It was so bad that wide receiver Alex Erickson drew at least two (if not more) intentional pass interference calls because he was about ready to score without the defender tackling him.
It was also the first week that we saw the deep passing game really be on point. While Wisconsin will ultimately win or lose based on its ability to run the football, the Badgers can’t abandon the deep passing game. Truth be told, it may need to come out firing the ball in the pass game to back the Buckeyes defense off a bit.
Last week felt more like the gameplan that Andy Ludwig has wanted to implement all season long, and it worked. More of what happened last week would be helpful to the Badgers winning the football game. That means going deep early and testing this “improved” Buckeyes secondary. It also means Stave needing to make the smart decision early and often, and that could be the scary part of going to the air.
While UW comes in as the technical favorite, it may not feel that way based on the national perception and the perception of the College Football Playoff committee. After all, Wisconsin was ranked just No. 13 in the rankings released last night, behind Ole Miss and Georgia Tech despite wins over highly ranked teams in two of the last three weeks. That could be some added motivation to a team already looking at this game as the opportunity to get to a New Years Six bowl game.
All the Badgers need to do is execute on the five points that we just laid out and a trip to somewhere nice and high-profile will be right in front of them. It will be easier said than done against a quality Ohio State team, but winning at Wisconsin isn’t and shouldn’t be complicated. Run the ball, stop big plays on defense and win in the trenches.