MADISON – The Wisconsin Badgers are coming off one of their better offensive performances of the season against Minnesota in their regular season finale. To say they were flawless would be a false testimony, but it was an effort that was certainly repeatable, and one they’ll likely need to attempt to improve upon this week against Ohio State.
The Buckeyes present a much more talented defense than the Gophers did, and there isn’t an argument on that front. It’s no secret that Wisconsin has struggled to take care of the ball at times. That’s something they can ill-afford to do when they square off with Ohio State. The Buckeye defense is filled with big named playmakers more than any other unit the Badgers have gone against this season.
“They’re a good defense, man,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told the media on Tuesday. “Their defensive line, they’re so deep and there are so many guys to study and watch. Their backers can fly around and run, they can step up and play press on you all day. They’re just really good and they’re really well coached within their scheme. I said this about Michigan’s defense, was a defense that was similar, but every guy can make the play. You know what I mean? They’re a field full of playmakers, which is difficult. You’ve got to be on, and every guy has to be on. They’ll be quite a challenge.”
The Buckeyes have the eighth best total defense in the FBS this season. They only give up 291.8 yards per game while holding opponents to slightly under 20 points per game. The Buckeyes have also been stout in the passing game, keeping opponents to an average of only 179 yards per game though the air. They’re also fifth in yards allowed per play at a miniscule 4.4. On the other end, Wisconsin’s defense actually ranks first in both yards per game and per play, at 236.9 and 4.0, respectively.
On offense, Wisconsin has relied on freshman running back Jonathan Taylor to be one of the best players in the country, but recently new playmakers have started to establish themselves. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has played better over the past two games and wide receivers Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, and A.J. Taylor have done a remarkable job filling in for the injured Quintez Cephus.
Against Minnesota, Hornibrook had his first interception-free game in the Big Ten this year and those three receivers combined for 11 catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. That group will be facing a huge test when lining up against Ohio State corner Denzel Ward.
“Playmaker,” Rudolph said as soon as Ward’s name was mentioned in a question about Ohio State’s defense. “We saw that against us [with Iowa’s Josh Jackson]. I think you’ve got great talent on the edges there. You give them an opportunity to make a play and they can make it.”
Ward was named a first-team All-Big Ten defensive back on Tuesday by the media as well. He’s been a regular in the first round of many mock draft experts and one of the best corners the Badgers have seen all season, only Iowa’s Jackson compares.
“He’s got good feet, he’s athletic, he’s quick,” Taylor said about Ward. “It’s going to be a competition, it’s going to be a fight. He’s a good corner. It’ll be a fun matchup.”
“I feel like he may be a little more faster and quicker with his feet,” Pryor said comparing Ward to Jackson.
If the Wisconsin offense was faced with this challenge shortly after Cephus went down for the year with a right leg injury it may be too tall of a task. Even though Cephus has only been out for three weeks, they’re more seasoned on the outside at this point than they were right after his injury.
“We keep saying each game we get better and better but I really think we’re a lot more comfortable,” Taylor said. We are a lot more comfortable as a group going out there and just doing our thing. Nobody is really nervous to go out there and maybe run a route or catch a ball in a big-time moment. We’re all more comfortable and we can think now, we feel like the game is starting to slow down. I’d say that’s how we’ve gotten it. The game is slowing down to us and it’s not as fast and intense as it would be.”
The young group will be facing a tough test on a stage larger than one they’ve previously been on, but it’s a challenge they’re ready for.