The challenge at hand for Urban Meyer’s coaching staff is clear: train up a backup quarterback in 7 days to lead the best-scoring offense in the conference against Wisconsin’s best-scoring defense in the conference. He must also keep the team united and focused in this toughest of weeks, when not only did another Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback go down for the season, but one of the team’s own walk-on players was also found dead of an apparent suicide.
At least there’s more than enough talent on this roster to overcome the hurdles facing the Buckeyes in Indianapolis this weekend. The question is whether this talent can be harnessed in these tough circumstances to continue the success this football team has experienced in the 10 games since losing to Virginia Tech in September.
So how can (No. 5) Ohio State pull things together and upset the favored (No. 13) Badgers? Here’s a list of important factors that will be key if OSU is going to win its first Big Ten championship since 2009.
Avoid Three-and-Outs to Slowly Win Field Position
Both Ohio State and Wisconsin have highly-efficient offenses in 2014, but one defining attribute that separates Ohio State from most offenses in the country is the ability to avoid three-and-out drives. The Buckeyes find a way to generate at least one or two first downs on nearly every possession, and that can help keep field position in the favor of the Buckeyes.
Ohio State leads the conference by converting 53% of third downs on the season, while Wisconsin leads the conference in third down defense by holding opponents to only 28% conversions on this down. The zone read has been the primary weapon for Ohio State on third-and-short, so it will be interesting to see if the offense remains successful against a much more stingy Wisconsin defense while having Cardale Jones make those reads.
Moreover, one huge advantage Ohio State has is in the punting game. Cameron Johnston averages over 44 yards per punt and 40.0 yards net, which ranks right at the top of the conference with the consensus best punting unit in the Big Ten (Minnesota). Meanwhile, Wisconsin only nets 33.0 yards per punt.
That seven yard difference on every traded possession will add up over time to give Ohio State a huge field position advantage. But this only happens as long as Ohio State is moving the chains and avoiding too many three-and-outs against the tough Wisconsin defense.
Thus, a potential focus on taking small chunks of yards when available rather than shooting for the big play offense may make the difference if the game turns into a battle of attrition. With two defenses this solid, that could again be the result.
Slow Melvin Gordon to Force the Badger Quarterbacks to Defeat You
Wisconsin won the first two Big Ten Championship games, and the second of these was a 70-31 drubbing of Nebraska in 2012 in which the then-third string Melvin Gordon made his first big splash. That night, he rushed for 216 yards on just 9 carries, an impressive feat that was not really matched until Gordon ripped apart Nebraska again three weeks ago for over 400 yards in three quarters of play.
Needless to say, Ohio State cannot reliably expect to completely stop Gordon (100 to 150 yards is likely going to happen at least), but he also cannot run wild with 10+ yards per carry or 200+ rushing yards. If Ohio State’s defense can keep closer to its season average of 4.0 yards per carry (and 145 yards per game), then the Badgers will not be able to just sit back on the running game like usual.
Wisconsin rushes for 334 yards per game, by far the best in the conference, but only passes for 148 yards per game, which ranks 12th in the conference. Put simply, Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy do not have the weapons around them like in recent years (Jared Abbrederis, anyone?) to go win a game on their own.
The game plan for Ohio State that was successful against Minnesota, another relatively one-dimensional run heavy offense, should work here if executed correctly. Although the Buckeyes are still not incredibly strong in the defensive backfield, the box must be loaded up against the run to dare Wisconsin to take chances against single coverage. Then Ohio State may benefit from the next key to victory, which is…
Win the Turnover Battle
Ohio State leads the conference with 18 interceptions on the season, a far cry from the backfield that was gashed by Michigan and Michigan State at the end of last season. Stave and McEvoy have only combined for 10 interceptions, but again, Wisconsin is not forced to throw passes often. Thus, if OSU can perhaps gain a lead and get Wisconsin out of the run-heavy offense, opportunities should present themselves for game-changing turnovers.
By contrast, Wisconsin ranks almost last in the conference with only 6 interceptions. Even with Cardale Jones making his first start at quarterback for OSU, there is no guarantee Wisconsin’s defense can just flip a switch and start making turnovers happen in the passing game.
The Badgers have forced more fumbles (11) than the Buckeyes (7), but the overall turnover margin for the season is still negative for Wisconsin while OSU stands at +5 in the turnover margin. In a game that looks so close on paper, usually one or two turnovers can make the difference between winning and losing. When Ohio State had Barrett, the team was able to overcome multiple turnovers against Michigan State, Minnesota, and Indiana in consecutive weeks.
That likely will not be the case against Wisconsin. Ohio State’s defense has proven to be a struggling unit this month when a quick change-of-possession occurs, so it is imperative that ball security be a top priority for getting a win in Indianapolis. Adding a couple Wisconsin turnovers could be just what is needed to overcome the favored Badgers.
Simplify the Offensive Playbook and Use Schematic Advantages
Although Urban Meyer has been blessed with Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett at quarterback (especially Barrett), Cardale Jones was recruited by the previous Jim Tressel and Luke Fickell coaching staffs. These coaches were recruiting an athlete that fits the mold of former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor: a large speedy quarterback who can run and has a reasonable passing arm.
Thus, Ohio State has found success recently with this type of quarterback, even though pass plays with these quarterbacks are usually limited to one or maybe two reads before the QB takes off on a run. That same formula should be implemented by Tom Herman this week to keep things simple for Jones in his first start against such a tough defense.
That should prevent Jones from falling into the same trap as Barrett did against Virginia Tech, especially if Wisconsin tries to follow the same hyper-aggressive blitzing schemes of the Hokies. If the read is not open, quickly find a running lane or throw the ball away. That has to be drilled into Jones this week more than any other concept because (a) Ohio State cannot give up completely on the passing game, and (b) taking sacks will put OSU’s offense in poor position to reach the goals above.
In addition to simplifying the playbook on the passing side, Jones must be given plays that make it easy to get the Buckeye play makers into open space to match skills with the Wisconsin defenders. Shovel passes to Jalin Marshall and quick passes to players like Ezekiel Elliott will force Wisconsin to make sure tackles in one-on-one situations. With the speed and power of the Buckeye skill position players, this would be a potential mismatch to exploit.
Even a couple missed tackles could lead to enough big plays to get the pressure off Jones and the offense. Outside of some simple pass plays and various zone read running plays, there should not be much more than Jones is asked to do. Just distributing the ball efficiently will be the best way to try and win this game.
Make “The Marshall Plan” as Important as Melvin Gordon
When Dontre Wilson went out for a few weeks with a broken foot following the Michigan State game, that forced freshman Jalin Marshall into this role essentially full time. And this has always been an important staple of Urban Meyer spread offenses.
Marshall has had some notable struggles with turnovers, particularly when returning punts, but that did not stop him from taking full advantage of this opportunity presented by Wilson’s injury. Marhsall scored touchdowns on four-straight offensive touches in the second-half rout of Indiana two weeks ago, and a similar type of impact may also be possible against Wisconsin.
Furthermore, Marshall was a quarterback last year in high school and may provide options for some misdirection/trick plays or some wildcat formation plays to help cover the new load of Cardale Jones. This player will almost certainly play a big role if Ohio State wins, and there’s no reason not to give him as many opportunities as possible.
Thus, Marshall must be as important and integral to the OSU game plan this week as Melvin Gordon typically is for Wisconsin. Both teams have proven that coming off this agenda and not giving these players touches will lead to major offensive struggles (for example, Wisconsin in the second half vs. LSU, Ohio State in the first half vs. Michigan).
Thus, “The Marshall Plan” must be in full effect this game for Ohio State to win. Hopefully Tom Herman learned from last year’s mistake when the team went away from Carlos Hyde runs in the fourth quarter of the 2013 B1G Championship despite that being the most proven production source on offense for the second half of that season.
Focus on the Game and Escape from the Chaotic Distractions
One only has to look at the team directly above the Buckeyes in the playoff rankings this week (Florida State) to see a team with plenty of distractions. Yet every week, Jameis Winston comes out and ignores all the chaos and distractions and just plays ball. This never ending focus on the game at hand is why the Seminoles keep surviving with an undefeated record.
Ohio State now needs to rally together and focus on getting back to enjoying football. This three hours on Saturday night is a chance to do what these players love to do, while gaining a much-needed escape from the bad news about Barrett and the tragic loss of Kosta Karageorge. This is also an escape from the ridiculous hype that is the college football playoff chase.
It’s pretty simple for Ohio State. Win, and then hope that one of the four teams above it loses this weekend. As Ohio State can control only the first of these needs, that means there’s no need to worry about style points or any other outside influences. Just win, baby. No other special rallying cry is necessary, especially when playing for the coveted Big Ten Championship.
Ohio State is not favored in this game thanks to the loss of Barrett, and rightfully so. Wisconsin is a much better team than some national pundits, and arguably the playoff committee, give it credit for. That being said, following through with the six-pack of strategies and executing this game plan well will result in a win for Ohio State.
Where the team will end up from there, who knows? However, a Big Ten title would be a good starting place, wherever the bowl season destination will be for the Buckeyes.