MADISON – Wisconsin’s defense has put up absolutely gaudy numbers this season. Statistically, it’s got a claim on being the best in the country.
But the numbers haven’t quieted the critics, largely because of the lack of high powered offenses Wisconsin has seen in its historic run to 12-0. Oddly enough, Wisconsin’s biggest challenge as a defense came in its second game of the season, against Florida Atlantic. The Owls’ number might be a bit inflated due to their schedule, but they’ve averaged 39.8 points per game and 6.6 yards per play, ranking 16th in total offense.
Outside of FAU, Wisconsin has only faced one other offense in the top 80 of the FBS and that was Purdue. The Boilermakers are ranked 76th in total offense, and were held to just nine points on 221 yards of offense on a chilly, rainy day at Camp Randall Stadium in October.
The test against Ohio State will be by far the biggest for Wisconsin this season. The Buckeyes enter the Big Ten Championship ranked fourth in total offense, averaging 43.8 points per game and 529.8 yards per game.
“People always talk about how we haven’t played great offenses,” defensive back Derrick Tindal said. “I’ve turned on the film and watched these same offenses that we’ve played destroy some people.”
That quote from Tindal could be taken a few different ways, with one of them alluding to the fact that Iowa’s offense rolled up 487 yards and was responsible for 48 of the Hawkeyes’ 55 points in a whipping of the Buckeyes just a week before they managed 66 yards and no offensive touchdowns in a loss to the Badgers. To Iowa’s credit, it did score a defensive touchdown against the Buckeyes and two against the Badgers as well.
Ohio State could be entering the game with a rather significant question mark at the quarterback position. Starter J.T. Barrett had to leave last week’s 31-20 win at Michigan with a knee injury sustained before the game. Barrett did play the first half before being removed after re-aggravating the injury in the third quarter. The senior then underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee on Sunday, but coach Urban Meyer said in a radio interview he expects Barrett to play.
However, if Barrett is unable to go, backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins would be the guy under center for Ohio State. He’s not as mobile as Barrett, but is praised for his arm strength that he put on display in relief against Michigan. He was 6 of 7 passing for 94 yards through the air.
In the backfield, Ohio State has the Big Ten’s second-best freshman running back in J.K. Dobbins. While he hasn’t put up the numbers that Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor has, he’s been impressive to watch as a young piece of the Buckeyes’ offense.
“Very explosive, he’s a guy that can cut on a dime at full-speed. Definitely need to get multiple hats to the ball with him. If you put yourself in too many one-on-one situations, then he’s going to make guys miss,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Dobbins.
Just as much is made of Wisconsin’s weak schedule and lack of opponents with explosive offenses, there’s another side to that coin. Ohio State hasn’t faced a defense as good as the unit Wisconsin has. Michigan State and Penn State have the ones that are most comparable, but both allow nearly a full yard per play more than Wisconsin does.
In this matchup, something will have to give, as it always does. The old adage states that “defense wins championships.” If Wisconsin is going to win the Big Ten, that’s how it is going to have to be done. If the Badgers are able to hold Ohio State’s offense in check, the defense will no longer have a reason to be doubted.