Why Ohio State will win Week 7's biggest game
With all due respect to the tenth-ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers, Saturday night’s matchup between Ohio State and Wisconsin is the Big Ten’s biggest regular season game remaining until The Game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines on November 26.
Ohio State will enter Madison ranked No. 2 in the country thanks to a versatile Heisman Trophy candidate on offense and a young, opportunistic defense. Despite having lost to Michigan 14-7 in Week 5, the Badgers are back in playoff-striking range at No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, but would do well to avoid their second-straight Big Ten loss. Recent history suggests Ohio State will come one the victor, but there are several interesting matchups on both sides of the ball that should make this a highly-competitive game.
Wisconsin offense versus Ohio State defense
This is without question the weaker side of the ball for the Badgers, as an inconsistent run game and ineffective play at QB have limited the unit’s ability to consistently put points on the board. On the offensive line, LT Ryan Ramczyk is a Div II transfer in his first year of FBS play, and has been nothing short of a revelation. His 81.8 overall grade makes him the highest-graded tackle in the Big Ten and 11th in the country. Elsewhere on the line, center Michael Deiter had solid grades until struggling with Michigan’s elite defensive interior, but he and Ramczyk are clearly the best performers on a line that has otherwise shown cracks in recent weeks (Michigan had 15 QB pressures against Wisconsin).
They’ll have a tough task going against the defensive line of Ohio State, as three of the four Buckeye starters have run defense grades of at least 79.0. DE Sam Hubbard appears to be the one weak link in terms of defending the run (51.7 run grade), but at some point Nick Bosa (81.4 run defense grade) is going to start eating into his first- and second-down snaps. Hubbard, Bosa and DE Tyquan Lewis have all been productive rushing the passer this year, as they’ve combined for seven sacks and 42 total pressures in five games.
After a hot start against LSU and Akron, RB Corey Clement has struggled through injuries (he did not play against Georgia State in Week 3) and has seen a significant drop in production in his last two games. He forced 10 missed tackles and averaged 4.7 yards per carry in Weeks 1 and 2, but in Weeks 4 and 5 he forced just three missed tackles and average 2.9 yards per touch. Backup Dare Ogunbowale has shown almost no elusiveness this season, as he has forced just two missed tackles on 44 carries and is gaining an average of just 1.8 yards per rush after contact. The Buckeye LB corps is led by Raekwon McMillan (85.0 run defense) and Jerome Baker, who had seven run stops and 10 solo tackles against Indiana last week (both figures surpassed his 2016 totals through four games).
Red-shirt freshman QB Alex Hornibrook (passing chart below) has shown some efficiency on short passes, but has completed just 14 of 37 pass attempts of at least 10 yards from the line of scrimmage for one score and three interceptions (all against Michigan).
TE Troy Fumagalli caught seven of eight targets for 100 yards against LSU in Week 1, but has just 81 yards on nine catches since, and only 23 of those yards have been after the catch. On the outside, wide receivers Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peevy have not been consistent threats, in particular (again) against Michigan where they combined for just four catches on 13 targets for 54 yards.
While the competition level certainly has played a huge part in the struggles of the Wisconsin skill players, it’s unlikely they’ll suddenly catch fire against a Buckeyes secondary that has been outstanding thus far. True freshman safety Malik Hooker and CBs Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore have given up just 20 catches on a combined 53 targets for 186 yards and one touchdown, all the while intercepting eight balls and breaking up an additional nine passes.
Ohio State offense versus Wisconsin defense
Last week’s 38 points was the Buckeyes’ “weakest” scoring output of the season, which highlights just how difficult the task at hand will be for Wisconsin’s defense. C Pat Elflein is the leader of the group, and while he’s been surprisingly average in the run game (64.8 run block grade) he has given up just four pressures (no sacks) in pass protection. LG Michael Jordan is next in terms of pass-blocking efficiency (five pressures, no sacks), but is by some distance the lowest-graded run blocker (45.0) of the starting five. LT Jamarco Jones is the highest-graded overall (75.7), and along with RT Isaiah Prince (and TE Marcus Baugh) will draw the difficult assignment of having to deal with OLB T.J. Watt, the Big Ten’s second-highest graded run defending edge player (84.6) who also leads the Badgers’ pass rush with four sacks and five hits. When combined, those figures mark the second-highest total in the Big Ten to Penn State’s Garrett Sickels, who has the benefit of having played six games compared to Watt’s five. Because of the injury to star OLB Vince Biegel, who has already been ruled out for this contest, Watt will be flanked by Garrett Dooley. Dooley’s first career start was against Michigan, and he impressed by posting a sack, three hurries and four total stops.
Starting DEs Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih have been solid in run defenders, but nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (48.7 overall grade) has struggled to consistently hold the point of attack, which should be a huge concern for the Badgers considering who he is lining up opposite. Elflein is always going to be the focal point of Ohio State’s zone-read offense, and this is a week to look for him to really get on track and boost his run grade.
Speaking of Ohio State’s running game, replacing Ezekiel Elliott’s production has not been difficult, in part due to the continued presence of QB J.T. Barrett, but also because of the impacts made by Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel. Weber leads the group with 566 rushing yards and a 6.8 yard per carry average, and has forced 15 missed tackles on the season. Samuel has contributed another 409 yards on the ground on just 50 carries (8.2 yard per carry average), and has proven to be one of the most versatile and dynamic offense weapons in the country.
The inside linebackers for Wisconsin round out what should be considered one of the strongest corps in the country. T.J. Edwards (77.9 overall) has again proved excellent in run support, while Jack Cichy has made huge contributions in all three phases and is in the Big Ten’s highest-graded coverage linebacker (84.4).
The Buckeyes appear to have no shortage of weapons outside despite the WR corps having lost four players to the NFL over the past two seasons. Noah Brown emerged as the top vertical threat with his five catches and four touchdowns against Oklahoma, although he has managed just three grabs in the two games since. When Samuel isn’t in the backfield, he typically lines up in the slot (121 snaps this year), and until being shut out by Indiana has been highly productive. Before going catchless on two targets last week, he had snagged 23 of 24 targets the first four weeks, and gained 185 of his 345 yards after the catch. He is averaging 150.8 yards from scrimmage per game, and will require the attention of Badgers at every level of the defense.
Wisconsin has gotten strong play from its entire back four this season, and is led by S Leo Musso, who has not only been strong in coverage but is also one of the Big Ten’s top-graded run defenders on the back end (80.4). Derrick Tindal is the top CB of the group, as he leads the Badgers with three interceptions and four passes defended, two of each coming against LSU and Michigan State.
Last week Barrett struggled to get the passing game going, as he completed just nine of 17 aimed throws (this accounts for a throw-away, two batted passes and one throw altered by a hit) for 93 yards with one score and one interception. He completed just one of seven attempts beyond the first down sticks, and had a QB rating of 52.3 on the day. This has become a worrisome trend in bad weather games for him, which bears delving into a bit deeper considering rain is currently in the forecast for Saturday night in Madison.
The Buckeyes’ lone loss of 2015 came in poor weather against Michigan State, where he again completed just one pass (in four attempts) that traveled at least 10 yards through the air from the line of scrimmage. Ohio State’s week two matchup against Tulsa this year also featured rain, and Tulsa hung with the Buckeyes until throwing two pick-sixes in the final minutes of the first half. Barrett completed just 10 of 17 throws beyond the line of scrimmage for 127 yards. Another issue consistent throughout Barrett’s college career has been his struggles passing when faced with pressure.
In 2014 his QB rating dipped from 128.4 with no pressure to 67.2 against the rush, last year his rating went from 114.2 to 61.0 and thus far in 2016 through five games the split is 126.4 to 73.6. It stands to reason he is likely to see a significant uptick in pressure this weekend compared to what he’s faced thus far in 2016 (it’s worth noting Wisconsin pressured Michigan QB Wilton Speight on 12 of 37 drop backs despite again not having Biegel), and if this is combined with more rainy weather, a neutralized Buckeye passing game could allow the Badgers to aggressively stack the box against the run with Musso.
This is again an area of concern for the Badgers, as primary field goal kicker Rafael Gaglianone is out for the season after back surgery last month. In his absence against Michigan and Michigan State Andrew Endicott attempt just one field goal, a 41-yarder against Michigan State (which he made). Ohio State’s Tyler Durbin has connected on all five of his attempts this season, but none of them have been over 40 yards. The Buckeyes have had strong punting thus far from Cameron Johnston, who has averaged 50.2 yards on 17 punts this year, and only two of them have been returned. Wisconsin’s P.J. Rosowski has averaged just 40.0 yards on seven punts this year, but Michigan’s dangerous punt returner Jabrill Peppers was forced to fair catch all three boots to him. Special teams look to be a slight edge for the Buckeyes, but again if rain is entered into the equation, it could make a significant difference for either side.
This will without question be the Ohio State offense’s most difficult matchup to date, and it will be intriguing to see if Barrett can bounce back after a poor performance through the air last week. If he struggles again, Wisconsin likely has the front seven to neutralize the run game better than what the Hoosiers could muster last week. On the other side, Wisconsin’s offense doesn’t appear to present much of a threat, but coming in fresh off a bye week and playing in front of the home crowd could give it the boost it needs to exceed its level of play to date. Barring a significant advantage in the turnover battle, however, the Buckeyes look to have enough to escape from Madison with the win.
Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 17