Big Ten Championship; Three keys to Wisconsin winning

INDIANAPOLIS – Wisconsin heads into Saturday’s matchup with Ohio State searching for their first Big Ten Championship since 2012. The Badgers enter the game perfect on the season at 12-0, but haven’t faced a team quite as talented as the Buckeyes to date.

The Buckeyes come into the contest at 10-2 on the season. At times, they’ve looked like one of the best teams in the country, but on other occasions they’ve looked rather pedestrian.

Here are three keys to a Badger win on Saturday night:

1. Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa was awarded as the Big Ten Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the year earlier this week. The matchup between Bosa and the Wisconsin offensive line will be a very interesting one to watch on Saturday. So far, this season Bosa has 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks and both of those marks pace the Buckeyes.

“I think [Ohio State] and Michigan had some of the best edge rushers I’ve seen this year,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said earlier this week. “One-hundred percent it will be my biggest challenge, especially on this stage, out there at tackle.”

Not only was Deiter speaking about Bosa, but also defensive end Sam Hubbard. Hubbard was a consensus second-team All-Big Ten this year and has 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks on the year. Things don’t end there for the Buckeye defensive line, Tyquan Lewis was also a consensus first-team selection, and Dre’mont Jones was named to the third-team by the media.

Wisconsin likely has the best offensive line that Ohio State has faced this season, but this will be a true battle of strengths. The Badgers must be able to open holes for freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to help keep quarterback Alex Hornibrook out of obvious passing situations. When the Badgers do fall into obvious throwing situations, the offensive line must keep Hornibrook upright.

2. Hornibrook’s favorite target this year has been senior tight end Troy Fumagalli. He leads the Badgers with 38 grabs on the season for 471 yards and four touchdowns despite missing some time due to injury. On the contrary, Ohio State has struggled defending tight ends in the play-action passing game at times this season.

Against Iowa, the Buckeyes allowed a combined nine catches for 125 yards and four touchdowns to tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant of the Hawkeyes. Those two aren’t necessarily mirror images of Fumagalli, but the area of weakness remains on the Buckeye defense. As recent as last week there were multiple instances of intermediate routes being open for Michigan’s offense. Wolverines’ quarterback John O’Korn was unable to find his teammates, however.

Hornibrook should be able to find Fumagalli in key situations, just as he has often attempted to do this year. That’s an area of weakness that the Badgers should look to exploit.

3. When Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was removed from the game against Michigan last week immediate uncertainty surrounding the quarterback position for the Buckeyes emerged. Backup Dwayne Haskins entered the game for Ohio State and helped them to win the game.

News broke during the week that Barrett had surgery on his knee on Sunday following the Michigan game but is expected to play against Wisconsin. His effectiveness is yet to be seen. Ohio State head coach told the media that Barrett had practiced throughout the week and is cleared to play, but never declared Barrett the starter.

Barrett is a quarterback that’s able to extend plays and escape the pocket when things break down around him. If his knee isn’t right and his running ability suffers because of that, Wisconsin’s already stout defense could be in even better position. The Badgers would be able to key on running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins in running situations and presumably be able to get to Barrett easier when the pocket collapses.

Barrett has been inconsistent throwing the ball, even when he’s been healthy. Wisconsin’s defense could take control of the game and force Barrett into mistakes and make things much more difficult than they normally do. Wisconsin’s chance at winning improves exponentially if those things happen.

Prediction: Early in the week I was leaning towards taking the Buckeyes, and I did go on record picking them before news of Barrett’s knee procedure broke. His health is my deciding factor, it takes an incredibly special athlete to be able to play in a football game six days after having surgery. While I commend Barrett for having the guts to try and suit up with his teammates, I don’t think he’ll play well enough for the Buckeyes to win.

Wisconsin 24-21

Preview: No. 2 Ohio State at No. 8 Wisconsin

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0) vs the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (4-1, 1-1)

The time: 7 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: ABC with Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit in the booth, and Samantha Ponder on the sideline.

The last time: Led by third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, Ohio State whipped the Badgers 59-0 in the 2014 Big Ten title game.

The series: Ohio State 57-18-5

The line: Ohio State -10.5

The Badgers injury report:

LB Vince Biegel (foot) — OUT

CB Natrell Jamerson (leg) — OUT

RB Taiwan Deal (ankle) — OUT

S Keelon Brookins (leg) — OUT

G Jon Dietzen (leg) — QUESTIONABLE

RB Bradrick Shaw (shoulder) — QUESTIONABLE

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) Night at Camp Randall

For the first time in five years, the Badgers will host a conference opponent in a night game at Camp Randall Stadium. Not since they rolled over No. 8 Nebraska 48-17 on the first day of October in 2011 has the 99-year-old stadium seen a matchup of this magnitude.

“Just from talks around (campus) for the past two weeks, it’s going to be pretty crazy,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. “I was here in 2010, the atmosphere was absolutely crazy. I would not be surprised to see something similar to that.”

Ah, yes, 2010. That’s the last time the Buckeyes came to town for a night game, doing so when they were ranked No. 1 in the country. The game started with Wisconsin’s David Gilreath returning the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown and ended with the crowd rushing the field.

While everyone is expecting a similar pregame scene on Saturday, coach Paul Chryst said this week that it’s not about what happens outside of the playing field.

“There will be a buzz around campus, the city and the state. (I) love that,” the second-year coach said. “But I think for us, the buzz is we get to play Ohio State.”

2) Bounce-back game?

The last time we saw the Wisconsin offense they were struggling to move the ball against a stout Michigan defense in a 14-7 loss. They were held to 159 yards of total offense, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw three interceptions.

As you’d expect, those on social media crucified Hornibrook. He went from savior against Michigan State to the problem in the loss to the Wolverines.

“Everything you hear after a game like we had last week, I already felt all those things,” said the redshirt freshman, who told Landof10.com that he suffered bruised ribs on the first drive of the game.  “I feel like I do a pretty job of not letting other people influence me and what I think of myself and what my abilities are. I know what I can do, so hearing all those outside things doesn’t really affect me too much.”

Still, the effort left some wondering if Chryst might go back to senior Bart Houston, but the coach didn’t waver. And he’s not concerned at all whether Hornibrook will respond in a positive way against another tough defense.

“Not everything went well in the games he played (before). I think he’s got a good understanding of when they don’t go (well), why they didn’t,” Chryst said. “It’s another new challenge, new experience for him. I’m very confident that he’ll be himself and that’s a good thing.”

3) Getting Clement going

Wisconsin has played some very tough defenses this season, but they won’t use that as an excuse for the struggles in moving the ball on the ground.

So far, the Badgers are averaging just 161 yards per game, up from last year but still the second-lowest total since 1995. And while the running game takes all 11 guys to execute, some have started to question running back Corey Clement.

Once thought to a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, the senior has just 319 yards and is averaging a meager 3.9 yards per carry. Some of that can be blamed on injuries along the offensive line, as well as Clement’s own ankle injury that forced him to miss one game and be limited in another. But the bye week was good for Clement, who spent the time hearing from Chryst and running backs coach John Settle on what he needs to do to get back in a groove.

“All 10 (guys) got to help Corey. And yet I think there’s some things Corey can do to help himself,” Chryst said. “There’s been some times where he’s been a little impatient.

“I think that was good for him to see (on film). The discipline of the little things.”

For Clement’s part, he believes he was being patient enough, but accepted the criticism, while also spending time watching some other running backs, including video of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley against Ohio State last year. The Buckeyes won going away but Barkley had 195 yards and two scores.

“I really like his style,” Clement said. “(He’s got the) downhill running, and he can beat you to the outside, too. He likes to change it up. That’s what I’ve got to do sometimes, change it up.”

4) Slowing J.T. Barrett

Ohio State lost a ton of talent to the NFL after last season, but one spot that head coach Urban Meyer didn’t have to worry about was at quarterback. That’s the spot occupied by junior J.T. Barrett, who is among the frontrunners for the Heisman Trophy.

This will be the first time Wisconsin has seen Barrett, as he broke his leg prior to the 2014 title game, and they couldn’t be more complimentary of the dual threat Texas native.

“I like how he plays,” cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “He can run just as well as any running back and can throw as well as any good quarterback.”

While he struggled in the pass game last week against Indiana, Barrett has thrown 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions so far this year, while also rushing for 342 yards and four scores.

“I’ve heard the analogy that he’s a point guard,” Chryst said. “And he’s a really good one.”

Part of his success comes in the read-option that Ohio State has used liberally at times. It stresses a defense to stay true to their principles and for everyone to do their job.

“I think his (best) trait is he has such a high I.Q. of the game,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “He orchestrates that offense very well. We just have to stay disciplined.”

5) The weather

This is Wisconsin, so a little rain isn’t going to put a damper on what is expected to be the biggest party of the season. But that doesn’t mean a thunderstorm or two won’t impact things.

Forecasters are calling for scattered storms in the early evening, and as we’ve seen in several other games this year, including Ohio State’s trip to Oklahoma, a weather delay due to lightning is possible.

If it is raining during the game, that could be an advantage for Wisconsin. According to Pro Football Focus, Barrett is just 6 of 20 on throws of 10 or more yards in his last three bad weather games.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

— Wisconsin has won seven straight night games at Camp Randall Stadium

— Junior T.J. Watt is tied for the most sacks in the Big Ten with 5.5

— The Badgers are 10.5-point underdogs. This is the first time since 1997 that they’ve been a double-digit underdog at home.

— Wisconsin has won eight of their last nine games coming off a bye week

— Ohio State is 19-0 in true road games under head coach Urban Meyer

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 21, Ohio State 17 (3-2 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 19, Ohio State 16 (3-2 on the season)
Jake Zimmermann’s prediction: Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (3-2 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 21, Ohio State 16 (3-2 on the season)
Eric Rogers’ prediction: Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 28 (3-2 on the season)