On (To) Wisconsin

This week the Buckeyes travel to Madison, Wisconsin and Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Badgers in the biggest game of the season to date.  Freshly dubbed the no. 1 team in the country, the Buckeyes must find a way to beat a tough, physical team in a night game in one of the most raucous venues in the land.  ESPN’s Game Day will be there, and lots of experts will be watching the game to see whether Ohio State really is deserving of its new ranking.

How can Ohio State win the game?  Well, they need to figure out how to stop Wisconsin’s running attack.  The Badgers’ ground game is spearheaded by junior John Clay, a big, punishing runner who can bust through the line of scrimmage and run people over.  Clay is one of the premier running backs in the nation.  He averages 6 yards a carry, has scored 9 touchdowns, and leads a rushing game that is the 11th best in the country.  Stopping the run has been a strength for Ohio State this year, but Clay, James White, and Montee Ball are in a different league than the other backs the Buckeyes have faced this year.

This will be a game where the offense has to help the defense.  Turnovers could be killers, not just because they keep Ohio State from scoring but also because they will further energize a loud crowd and allow Clay and colleagues to keep pounding away at the Buckeye defense.  The problems with the Ohio State special teams this year also mean that the less reliance on the punting unit, the better.  Ohio State’s offense has to protect the ball while also putting some points on the board and keeping the defense off the field.  Wisconsin has a fine quarterback in senior Scott Tolzien, but I’d rather face a Wisconsin that is throwing the ball to try to catch up than a Wisconsin that is running the ball down Ohio State’s throat.  A lot will depend on Terrelle Pryor, his scrambling, and his ability to hit Ohio State receivers — and if Ohio State were to get a solid effort from its running backs that would be useful, too.

The intangibles in this game all favor Wisconsin.  They are playing at home and are looking to turn around a season that ran off the rails a bit when the Badgers lost unexpectedly to Michigan State.  Ohio State, in contrast, will be carrying the burden of a no. 1 ranking for the first time in a long time.  Add to that the challenge of playing at night in a huge stadium that will be packed with screaming fans, and you end up with a very big challenge for the Buckeyes.

Big D at the ‘Shoe

Weatherwise, it was a great day for college football in Columbus yesterday. The rains had moved through, the air was cool, and most of the game between Ohio State and Wisconsin was played in bright sunshine.  Although the conditions seemingly were perfect for offensive football, my friends and I, and the more than 100,000 other fans at Ohio Stadium, were treated to a defensive clinic by both teams  — and a single, electrifying 97-yard kickoff return that put the game away — as the Buckeyes won, 31-13.

The Ohio State defense was spectacular, scoring two touchdowns on interception returns, pressuring and hitting the Wisconsin quarterback all game long, and keeping Wisconsin’s big back in check.  In the third quarter, the Ohio State offense did not even touch the ball until less than two minutes remained because the defense scored one of its touchdowns and, after Wisconsin answered with a field goal, Ray Small took the kickoff right up the middle, untouched, for another score.  Although the defense must have been exhausted from being on the field the entire quarter, it remained stout. As a result of the defense and special teams scores, and some bad offensive play by the Buckeyes, all of the normally dispositive statistics were one-sided in Wisconsin’s favor.  The Badgers had the ball for more than 42 minutes of the 60-minute game (!), and their offensive production was about twice that of the Buckeyes. 

The Buckeyes offense, on the other hand, produced one touchdown on a good drive and a field goal on another decent drive, but was otherwise anemic.  At the end of the game, when Ohio State had an 18-point leave, Coach Tressel no doubt threw away part of the playbook because he did not want to risk a momentum-changing interception, and the offense consisted of unsuccessful runs up the middle.  Until the very end of the first half, however, the Badgers defense held the Buckeyes to an irritating series of three-and-outs and picked off a bad Terrelle Pryor pass to help produce Wisconsin’s only touchdown.

Some other thoughts on the game:

Terrelle Pryor obviously struggled with his passing and made some poor throws.  His interception occurred when he locked in on a receiver, and he made some other ill-advised throws and still other throws that were well off-target.  Curiously, his one deep throw, for the Buckeyes’ lone offensive touchdown, was a well-thrown ball.  Perhaps he should go downfield more often?  In any case, on the basis of yesterday’s game, it is hard to argue that Pryor has made any significant strides in the passing department.  Some day soon Ohio State is going to need for him to step up and actually have a game where throws accurately, consistently, and wisely.

On the ground, Ohio State ran one really good play, a kind of counter where Pryor and the line ran right and he then handed the ball to Brandon Saine heading left, and Pryor had a good run on a scramble to start off the Buckeyes’ end-of-the-first-half drive.  Other than that, the play was pretty uninspired, and the Buckeyes’ offensive line made the Badgers look like the fabled Seven Blocks of Granite.  It was hard to watch yesterday’s game and get many positive vibes from the offense — although, in fairness, it was reported that many of the offensive lineman were suffering from the flu last week.  Whatever the reason, Ohio State’s offensive line got no push and seemed to be manhandled by the Wisconsin front.

Defensively, it is hard to give the Buckeyes’ defensive line too much praise.  Using what appeared to be an eight-man rotation, the OSU defensive front consistently pressured and hit the Wisconsin quarterback and did a good job against the run.  Giving up 360 or so yards to a team that has the ball for more than 42 minutes and runs more than twice as many offensive plays is a pretty good effort, particularly when some of that came against an obvious prevent-type defense.  Wisconsin is no offensive juggernaut, but there is no doubt that the Ohio State defensive line is good.  The Buckeyes also delivered some bone-jarring hits, and the two interception returns featured pretty broken field running by Ohio State defensive backs.

What does it all mean?  Ohio State stayed undefeated in the Big Ten and knocked off an undefeated team on a day when the Ohio State offense played poorly.  Soon, however, Ohio State’s offense is going to need to move the ball against good defenses, and that is when we will see what this team is really made of.