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Friday, December 01, 2023
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Badgers brace for Buckeye brawl

In their first road game of the season, the Wisconsin Badgers will travel to face the No. 3 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The matchup will prove to be Wisconsin’s toughest challenge of the season, and the first real opportunity to prove themselves.

The unranked Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) will take on the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0) this Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium. 

Ohio State followed up a competitive Week 1 showing versus Notre Dame (21-10 win) by absolutely dominating Arkansas State (45-12) and Toledo (77-21). So, while Wisconsin may be riding high after a blowout victory against New Mexico State, Ohio State enters Saturday having strung together two such wins. 

A nighttime road game against a Buckeye team loaded with NFL talent appears to spell certain doom for the Badgers, but Wisconsin may boast the depth and mindset to keep Saturday’s contest within reach. 

Ohio State offense vs. Wisconsin defense

At the center of a star-studded offense, quarterback C.J. Stroud shines brightest. Through three games he’s completed 72.9% of his attempts for 941 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. The six-foot-three California native combines elite decision-making with the arm strength and accuracy to make exceptional throws to all parts of the field. 

Barring drastic circumstances between now and April, Stroud will become the third straight Buckeye starting quarterback (Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields) to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. 

Ohio State features one of, if not the best receiving corps in college football. Marvin Harrison Jr., whose father is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, has 342 yards and five touchdowns on 18 catches thus far in 2022. 

Emeka Egbuka has 20 catches, 324 yards and three scores of his own. Jayden Ballard, after contributing little through two weeks, had a 72-yard touchdown and 113 total yards against Toledo. 

That list doesn’t even include arguably the best wide receiver on Ohio State’s roster. Junior Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who concluded a dominant 2021 season with a 15-catch, 346-yard and three-touchdown Rose Bowl performance, exited with a strained hamstring in Week 1 and missed the Buckeyes’ second game. He returned to catch a pair of passes last Saturday but sat out the second half and has yet to truly make his mark on the Buckeyes’ already fearsome offense. 

The abilities of Stroud and his pass-catching weapons will present Wisconsin’s secondary with an entirely unfamiliar challenge. Illinois State and Washington State’s offenses flashed competence at times, New Mexico State’s not at all. 

Ohio State will inevitably rack up yardage on downfield throws, taking advantage of a Badger secondary that has been a weakness in the early season. Cornerbacks Jay Shaw, Ricardo Hallman, Justin Clark and others will be challenged all game, as will safeties John Torchio and Kamo’i Latu. The defensive backs will have to tighten up in the red zone and force field goals, or get lucky and intercept Stroud, if they’re to keep the game competitive. 

Stopping the run, though perhaps not the ultimate priority, must remain a focus of Wisconsin’s defense. The Buckeyes’ ground game goes through running backs TreVeyon Henderson (197 yards, 6.8 per carry, three touchdowns) and Miyan Williams (207 yards, 6.5 per carry, one touchdown). An injury forced Henderson’s early exit from the Toledo game and it’s currently unclear whether he’ll play this week.

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A stifling run defense is the strength of Jim Leonhard’s unit, however the Badgers should primarily keep Stroud and the receivers in mind. A physically imposing performance by nose tackle Keeanu Benton, as well as secure tackling and gap control across the defense, are keys to making the Buckeyes as one-dimensional as possible.

It’s imperative that the Badgers find a way to pressure Stroud, who’s been sacked only twice this season and has proven to be lethal with a clean pocket. 

Pass-rushing contributions from players besides linebacker Nick Herbig, who has four of the team’s seven sacks, would be helpful. Perhaps C.J. Goetz, the outside linebacker opposite Herbig, could muster up some production as an edge rusher.

As well as Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta have played up the middle, neither has had the backfield presence of Leo Chenal and his eight sacks last season. Some member of the front seven must emerge for the pass rush as the Badgers enter this challenging stretch of games. 

Creative defensive play calling is a must. Torchio and Latu are responsible for two of the other three sacks but will have their hands full in pass coverage. While well-executed safety blitzes may be effective, they’ll isolate the cornerbacks in single coverage — a dangerous proposition, considering the opponent. 

Wisconsin offense vs. Ohio State defense

With the Buckeyes certain to score in bunches, it’s on Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin offense to keep pace. 

As usual, Ohio State’s defense is strong across the board. Opponents have managed a miniscule 2.6 yards per carry and Toledo was the only team to crack 100 yards on the ground. 

Middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg leads the team with 19 tackles and has a pair of sacks. Linebackers Steele Chambers and Cody Simon have 13 and 12 tackles, respectively, with the former adding a sack and a pass deflection. 

Wisconsin’s running back trio of Braelon Allen, Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo will face much stiffer resistance this week. Running the ball will help burn clock and keep Ohio State’s offense on the sideline. So, for however long the game is close, Mertz figures to hand it off with regularity. 

The Badger quarterback has shown considerable improvement over 2021. This Saturday, the pressure on Mertz will be amplified not only by a packed road crowd but also by a legitimate defensive secondary. 

Despite having only one interception so far this season, Ohio State’s pass defense fields no shortage of talent. Cornerbacks Cameron Brown and Denzel Burke comprise a formidable duo on the outside and will test Wisconsin receivers’ abilities to create separation. 

Free safety Ronnie Hickman is a player Mertz must keep on his radar. A redshirt junior who had 99 tackles and three takeaways last year, Hickman has the range and vision to excel in deep zone coverage. He’s also adept at man-to-man coverage on tight ends, which could eliminate Wisconsin’s Clay Cundiff from the equation.

Ohio State’s individual defensive statistics are limited by the fact that it has rested many of its starters during the blowout victories. In a close contest this week, the Buckeyes will keep their best players on the field and make life difficult for Wisconsin’s offense all night long. 

Is an upset realistic? 

Until we see the Badgers play in a hostile road environment against an excellent team like the Buckeyes, it’s impossible to know how they’ll perform. That said, both the eye test and the numbers suggest Ohio State will win by a substantial margin, and it’s unreasonable to expect Mertz and co. to improve away from the supportive confines of Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin also has some encouraging news on the injury front. Right tackle Riley Mahlman, after missing the last two games with a leg issue, was not on Monday’s injury report and could return to action. 

The same goes for kicker Vito Calvaruso and kickoff specialist Jack Van Dyke, who offer a bit more familiarity on special teams despite the former’s struggles two weeks ago. 

Cornerback Alexander Smith (leg) remains sidelined, although it would’ve been unfair to expect much from him in a season debut against such a stellar pass offense, anyways. 

After Monday’s practice, Jim Leonhard reportedly urged the team to treat Saturday like the big game it is. 

“We’re not going to treat this like another game, it’s not,” said Braelon Allen, reiterating the defensive coordinator’s message. “Once you accept that fact, everything will calm down for you.” 

“In order to be the best, you have to take out the best,” added Jay Shaw. 

Ohio State is undeniably one of the best, and it’s exciting to see some of Wisconsin’s most important players embrace the primetime matchup.

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