Sports

Preview: Ohio State Faces Another Physical Test in Big Ten Opener Against Wisconsin

Ohio State’s first conference game of the season has a similar feel to the Buckeyes’ first game of the season as a whole.

Wisconsin is a run-heavy team offensively that will look to limit Ohio State’s number of possessions. At the same time, it also has a stout defense capable of slowing down the Buckeyes’ offense. Those items also appeared on the scouting report entering OSU’s season opener against Notre Dame.

WISCONSIN BADGERS
2-1
ROSTER / SCHEDULE

7:30 P.M. – SATURDAY, SEPT. 24
OHIO STADIUM
COLUMBUS, OHIO

ABC
ESPN+

Even though Notre Dame limited the Buckeyes to three touchdowns in that game, Ohio State proved it could grind out a tough win over a highly touted opponent by outlasting the Fighting Irish for a 21-10 victory. The Buckeyes can undoubtedly build off of what they did well in that game – and learn from what they didn’t – as they prepare to play Wisconsin in another home night game televised by ABC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Read:Jalen Hill, former UCLA basketball player, dies at age 22

Considering that Notre Dame is just 1-2 and had to battle for its first win last week against California, though, Wisconsin has a strong case for being a better team than any Ohio State faced in non-conference play. Couple that with this being the first conference game for both teams that are currently favored to meet again in the Big Ten Championship Game in December, and Ryan Day says the Buckeyes need to be prepared for their toughest test of the season yet on Saturday.

“I think that Wisconsin epitomizes Big Ten football. They’re well-coached, they have good players, they play with a physical nature, they have a great identity,” Day said. “So we know that this is what we have to do. If we’re going to make a run at the Big Ten championship, we have to beat Wisconsin. It’s been on the schedule here for a while, and we’ve played them in the Big Ten championship game in the past, and they have one of the better teams in the country, year in and year out.”

The Headlines

No. 1 offense vs. top-10 defense

Ohio State’s offense leads the entire nation in yards per game this season – even though it ranked just 40th in that category a week ago – after accumulating a whopping 763 yards in last weekend’s 77-21 win over Toledo. The Buckeyes also now rank seventh nationally in passing yards per game and 10th in points scored per game after reaching the end zone 11 times and being stopped just once against the Rockets, but scoring likely won’t come as easily this week.

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Wisconsin has allowed only eight points and 246 yards per game in its first three games. The Badgers haven’t faced anything close to an elite offense, as their only Power 5 opponent so far (Washington State) ranks 90th in scoring offense and 97th in total offense this season. But there’s still reason to believe their early defensive success is legitimate, considering Wisconsin led the entire country in total defense a year ago.

So while Ohio State’s offense showed last week it is fully capable of having the best offense in college football once again this season, this week will be a more accurate test for the Buckeye offense, which will be looking to put up more significant numbers than it did against Notre Dame, its only marquee opponent of the season to date.

“They’ve got some great players on that side of the ball, and I think they’ve been a top 10 defense statistically since 2017,” Ohio State center Luke Wypler said. “So for us, it’s gonna be a great feat to go against them, and I think we’re excited for the challenge. I think that’s something we embrace.”

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Badgers look to avoid second September loss

While Wisconsin might be the best team Ohio State has faced so far this season, this week will also be the first time the Buckeyes play a team that has already lost a game. The Badgers suffered defeat in their only non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent, falling 17-14 to Washington State.

That certainly leaves lingering questions about how good the Badgers are, especially on offense, as they scored only twice while turning the ball over three times in their loss to the Cougars. Wisconsin bounced back by scoring 66 points last weekend, but that came against a New Mexico State team that’s 0-4 this season.

A road win over Ohio State would propel Wisconsin back into the top 25, but a loss would squash the Badgers’ College Football Playoff hopes before the end of September. The risk of finishing the first month of the season with a .500 record gives the Badgers a sense of urgency entering this game.

“(Defensive coordinator Jim) Leonhard talked to us after practice, and he said, ‘We’re not gonna treat like this another game, because it’s not.’ This is a big game,” Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen said this week. “We are looking at it as a big game. We know what it is. We’re not gonna ignore that.”

How healthy will the Buckeyes be?

Ohio State was without a half-dozen starters by the end of the first half of last week’s game against Toledo. Safeties Josh Proctor and Tanner McCalister and defensive tackle Mike Hall all sat out the game with injuries, running back TreVeyon Henderson and cornerback Cameron Brown both left with injuries in the first half, and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also checked out of the game in the second quarter after missing the Arkansas State game with a hamstring injury he suffered against Notre Dame.

Ryan Day said this week that none of those players are dealing with long-term injuries and that Ohio State hopes to have all of them available this weekend. He said Thursday that he expects Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming to be full-go this weekend after they played only a limited number of snaps against Toledo.

“We’ll kind of just keep taking it day by day and see how they do but so far, so good,” Day said Thursday of Smith-Njigba and Fleming.

All of that said, there will be lingering uncertainty about who will be available for this week’s game until Ohio State releases its pregame status report at 5 p.m. Saturday – and perhaps even beyond that, considering that none of Hall, McCalister or Proctor were listed on the initial status report last week while Smith-Njigba and Fleming were game-time decisions. And being without any of those players could hamper the Buckeyes on either side of the ball.

That said, the Buckeyes aren’t the only team dealing with injuries entering this game. Wisconsin cornerback Alexander Smith and safety Hunter Wohler, both starters in the Badgers’ secondary, have been ruled out of Saturday’s game, along with starting right tackle Riley Mahlman and field goal kicker Vito Calvaruso, forcing Wisconsin to rely on backups in all three phases of the game.

Another home night game

For the second time ever, Ohio State is playing three home night games in the same season – and in this case, the Buckeyes are playing their third home night game before the end of September. By playing Wisconsin under the lights at Ohio Stadium just one week after hosting Toledo at night, Ohio State will play back-to-back home night games for the first time.

Ohio State is leaning into the opportunity to play another night game by wearing all-black uniforms and encouraging fans to wear black to create a “blackout” environment inside the Shoe. 

While Day acknowledged this week that he enjoys playing in the afternoon, he said the trio of early-season night games has been good for recruiting, as Ohio State is set to host about two dozen prospects this weekend, including five-star defensive end target Keon Keeley. Day also expects another great environment inside Ohio Stadium that could help propel the Buckeyes to victory.

“The electricity of the Horseshoe for a night game, there’s nothing like it,” Day said. “I’m excited we have a night game. I’m excited to see Buckeye Nation again come out and support our guys, and we’d really like to be loud in this one. I was thinking about the (Wisconsin) game in ’19. That was a noon game. This is a night game. So Buckeye Nation’s got all day to get excited and get fired up, and let’s go make this the loudest it’s ever been.”

Keep An Eye on These Guys

RB Braelon Allen

The latest in a long line of standout running backs to make their way through Wisconsin, Allen is a 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back who combines size and power that makes him tough to tackle with the athleticism to explode through defenses for big plays.

After rushing for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns on 186 carries as a freshman, Allen has rushed for 332 yards and five touchdowns – including a 96-yard touchdown in the Badgers’ season opener against Illinois State – on 50 carries so far this season.

From Jonathan Taylor to Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball, Ohio State has often had success slowing down star Wisconsin running backs. The Buckeyes have effectively shut down opposing running backs in their first three games this season. Nonetheless, Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles knows Allen will give his run defense a different kind of challenge than it’s faced so far this year.

“In the big back category, he’s as good as any that I have seen,” Knowles said of Allen. “We have to make sure that we have great form when we tackle him and rally to the football and vice him in. It’s going to be a team effort because he is very talented.”

DT Keeanu Benton

Ohio State’s rushing offense could also face its toughest test of the season so far against Wisconsin, and that starts up front with Benton, a 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2021.

Benton is also a disruptive interior pass-rusher who’s currently tied for the Badgers’ team lead with nine quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, so he’s a player the Buckeyes’ interior offensive line will need to account for on every down.

“He’s a good player,” Day said. “Real strong, big, physical, one of the better interior defensive linemen in the conference.”

OLB Nick Herbig

Ohio State’s offensive line has done an excellent job giving C.J. Stroud a clean pocket so far this season, as the Buckeyes have allowed only two sacks. Still, Ohio State’s tackles will face one of their toughest tests of the season so far against Herbig, who ranks second in the Big Ten with four sacks already this year.

As a second-team preseason AP All-American, Herbig has lived up to expectations so far with 11 tackles, nine quarterback pressures, and five tackles for loss. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound edge rusher has more sacks than the rest of the Badgers combined this season, so blocking him will be the top priority for Ohio State in pass protection.

NFL scouts will surely be keeping a close eye on the matchup between Herbig and Ohio State offensive tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones, and Herbig will be motivated to show what he can do on the big stage.

“I just go in the mindset if you want to be the best, you got to beat the best,” Herbig said this week.

Game Week Talk

“This is one of those games that I knew when I committed here was gonna be a big one, because they’re known for bigger, stronger guys. So I feel like this was always a game I’ve looked forward to since I was in high school.”– Ohio State left tackle Paris Johnson Jr.

While Wisconsin’s defensive front might be the best Ohio State has faced so far this season, that’s a challenge Ohio State’s left tackle is fully embracing as a chance to show what he can do.

“You can’t not be excited for this. That’s a great program with a tough team and tough kids on it. It’s gonna be a great test for us to see what we’re really made of because, I mean, this is another tough Big Ten ballclub.”– Ohio State tight end Cade Stover

Stover said toughness is something the Buckeyes have to bring every day if they’re going to achieve their goals this season, and he knows that will be especially true when playing the Badgers.

“Everybody’s fast, It’s a very fast defense and very talented. I mean, those guys are there for a reason.”– Braelon Allen on Ohio State’s defense

Allen, who was recruited by Ohio State as a safety (before he bulked up to his current size) but never received an offer from the Buckeyes, knows high the standard is to become a defensive player at Ohio State, so he’s not surprised by their early success on defense this season.

Projected Starters
Ohio State Pos Wisconsin
OFFENSE
C.J. STROUD QB GRAHAM MERTZ
TREVEYON HENDERSON RB BRAELON ALLEN
MARVIN HARRISON JR. WR CHIMERE DIKE
EMEKA EGBUKA WR SKYLER BELL
JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA WR/TE HAYDEN RUCCI
CADE STOVER TE CLAY CUNDIFF
PARIS JOHNSON JR. LT JACK NELSON
DONOVAN JACKSON LG TYLER BEACH
LUKE WYPLER C JOE TIPPMANN
MATT JONES RG MICHAEL FURTNEY
DAWAND JONES RT LOGAN BROWN
DEFENSE
J.T. TUIMOLOAU DE RODAS JOHNSON
MIKE HALL NT KEEANU BENTON
TARON VINCENT DT/DE ISAIAH MULLENS
ZACH HARRISON DE/OLB NICK HERBIG
STEELE CHAMBERS ILB JORDAN TURNER
TOMMY EICHENBERG ILB MAEMA NJONGMETA
TANNER MCCALISTER NB/OLB C.J. GOETZ
DENZEL BURKE CB JAY SHAW
CAMERON BROWN CB RICARDO HALLMAN
RONNIE HICKMAN FS KAMO’I LATU
JOSH PROCTOR SS JOHN TORCHIO

Get Smart

  • Ohio State has won its last eight consecutive matchups with Wisconsin dating back to its 2011 game against the Badgers, when a 40-yard touchdown pass from Braxton Miller to Devin Smith with just 20 seconds remaining propelled the Buckeyes to a 33-29 victory.
  • Ohio State has an all-time record of 61-18-5 against Wisconsin, including a 31-7-3 record vs. the Badgers in Columbus.
  • Ohio State has won its last 10 consecutive Big Ten openers, with its last loss in a conference opener coming in 2011 against Michigan State.
  • Wisconsin’s roster features seven players from Ohio, including a pair of starting defensive linemen from Columbus: Rodas Johnson (St. Francis DeSales) and Isaiah Mullens (Harvest Prep).
  • True freshman offensive lineman Carson Hinzman is Ohio State’s only player from Wisconsin (and just the third Buckeye ever from the Badger State).
  • Eleven Dubgate X will be held before Saturday’s game, beginning at 3 p.m. behind the Varsity Club, with all proceeds going to Special Olympics Olentangy.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -19, O/U 57

The initial betting line for this game installed Ohio State as a 16-point favorite with an over/under of 51.5, but both of those numbers have gone up over the course of the week as bettors expect the Buckeyes to win by three or more scores and for the game to be a higher-scoring contest than Ohio State’s season-opening battle with Notre Dame.

There’s probably good reason for that, considering how explosive Ohio State’s offense was a week ago. And the Badgers might be more capable than Notre Dame was of putting up some points on the Buckeyes’ defense, especially if they’re at anything less than full strength with several players working their way back from injuries.

Every member of the Eleven Warriors staff believes Ohio State will score at least 34 points, but none of us have the Buckeyes scoring more than 45. All of our writers believe the Badgers will score at least 10 points, but none of us expect Wisconsin to score more than 21.

C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes’ passing offense give the home team a clear advantage over Graham Mertz and the Badgers, and if Ohio State can carry over the momentum it built last week, a sizable win for the home team could be in the cards. Much like against Notre Dame, though, how effectively Ohio State runs the ball and stops the run could be the biggest factor in how Saturday’s game plays out, and the Buckeyes need to be prepared for a four-quarter slugfest.

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