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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Wisconsin Football Head Coach Luke Fickell on the Barry Alvarez Field at Camp Randall Stadium. 

Major checkpoint for Luke Fickell arrives as Badgers host Ohio State

The Badgers host a top-five opponent this weekend in a game that serves as a major measuring point for coach Luke Fickell.

The date is Oct. 16, 2010. The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers are hosting the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes in a packed Camp Randall Stadium under the lights. David Gilreath takes the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. With Scott Tolzien under center, James White in the backfield and J.J. Watt on the defensive line, the Badgers downed the top-ranked Buckeyes in a pulsating 31-18 victory. 

The Badgers have not defeated the Buckeyes since that night. Wisconsin has lost their last nine games to Ohio State. That includes some very forgettable matchups, including a 59-0 loss in the Big Ten Championship. There was also a 38-7 loss in 2019. And most recently, the 52-21 drubbing in Columbus last year that served as a reality check for Wisconsin and was part of the losing streak that led to the firing of Paul Chryst. 

It hasn’t been completely bleak in this series for the Badgers. They narrowly lost the Big Ten Championship 27-21 in 2017 and put up a good effort in a 34-21 loss in the championship game in 2019. But those only amount to moral victories.

In the category that matters — wins — the Badgers have not toppled the Buckeyes since Barack Obama’s first term. Back then, Kesha’s “Tik Tok” topped the charts and “Avatar” was the best-grossing movie. Suffice to say, it has been a while since Wisconsin defeated Ohio State. 

As the Badgers and Buckeyes line up Saturday night, head coach Luke Fickell finds himself squarely in the spotlight. Fickell has a rich history with Ohio State, recording a school record 50 straight starts at nose tackle for the Buckeyes back in the mid ‘90s. He then served as a coach for Ohio State in various capacities, including defensive coordinator and interim head coach. 

Fickell’s alma mater will serve as his first major checkpoint since arriving in Madison. To date, the Badgers are 5-2 with a 3-1 record in the Big Ten. Wisconsin is off to a solid start, but the time for waiting is over. 

Fickell’s first true test has arrived, and the subject won’t be an easy one. The Buckeyes have been the top of the class in the Big Ten for a better part of the last decade.

Ohio State is the only Big Ten team to win the national championship in the College Football Playoff era and has participated in four other playoffs since their 2015 triumph. 

They also won the Big Ten four years in a row from 2017-20. Even though Michigan has won the Big Ten the last two years, the Buckeyes still won the Rose Bowl in 2021 and lost in the dying seconds to eventual national champion Georgia in the Peach Bowl last year. 

Ohio State has picked up right where they left off, starting this year 7-0 and entering Camp Randall Saturday as the No. 3 ranked team in the country. They have already bested No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 7 Penn State just last week. Ohio State has ten five-star players on their roster, behind only Georgia and Alabama. 

It is clear the Badgers are facing quite a challenge on Saturday night. Though they boast a respectable record, they lost starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai to a hand injury a couple of weeks ago. 

Braedyn Locke filled in admirably last week against Illinois, throwing for 240 yards and two touchdowns while engineering a 14-point fourth quarter comeback in the process. There is no question that, regardless of the result Saturday, Fickell is still entitled to patience to get results. 

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However, this is not a totally hapless team that Fickell coaches. They are in first place in the, albeit very weak, Big Ten West, and Fickell was brought to Madison to break the status quo. Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin called Fickell a “transformative hire.” 

A win against Ohio State on Saturday would certainly be transformative. This game serves as a measuring stick in how far the Badgers are from the top. 

Are they capable of avoiding last year’s rout? Can they pull off a 2010-style upset? Or are they somewhere in the middle? 

It’s often said that “in order to be the best, you have to beat the best.” The Badgers will get their opportunity under the lights Saturday night to make a statement, or show that they have a ways to go to prove Fickell’s hire was truly transformative.

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