It’s senior day in Madison, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Badgers, which locked up its appearance in the B1G TEN Championship Game with last week’s beatdown of the Indiana Hoosiers, needs some help if it is going to secure the Leaders (Legends?) Division championship trophy (it exists). Though set for a trip to Indianapolis, the Badgers have two losses in conference play (at home to Michigan State and at Nebrasky to begin league play). Ohio State has no losses on the season and, thus, looks like the favorite to secure that
paperweight Leaders (or Legends?) Division championship trophy. A win for Ohio State in Madison gives Ohio State the honor outright. Meanwhile, Wisconsin needs Ohio State to lose the rest of the way if it is going to be Leaders (Legends?) Division champion on something other than a technicality.
Maybe this looked like a game that played much more in Ohio State’s favor a month ago. Wisconsin was struggling, including that hilarious effort against Oregon State in Corvallis. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s offense demonstrated supreme confidence in executing the new offense implemented by Urban Meyer and Tom Herman. Still, our defense looked like a shell of itself a month ago, much like Wisconsin’s offense looked like a shell of its former self. Fast forward a month later, and both teams appear to have hit their peak this season. Though Michigan State’s defense shut it down, Wisconsin’s offense has 42 points a game in the four wins after losing the conference opener in Lincoln. For its part, Ohio State’s defense finally looked proficient in ending any hopes of an upset bid by the Illinois Fighting Illini, also shutting down the Penn State run game the week before that in Happy Valley. Coming off a much needed bye, Ohio State is set for two consecutive clashes with the conference’s best. In this preview, I go over the Wisconsin offense and defense. You know them well enough by now.
Paul Chryst left Wisconsin to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh, also taking with him almost the entirety of Wisconsin’s assistant coaching staff.1 As such, there was a considerable void in Wisconsin’s offense (and team, generally speaking) that saw the Badgers struggle to put away Northern Iowa and Utah State, in addition to falling flat on its face against Oregon State. Much of this seemed to be the result of the latest quarterback transfer for Bert’s Badgers, Danny O’Brien (#6). The third of the last five Wisconsin starting quarterbacks to have transferred from another BCS program to Wisconsin, the Maryland transfer/graduate did not have the same immediate impact that Russell Wilson had last year coming from North Carolina State, nor did he have the tenability that Allan Evridge (from Kansas State) had some years ago. He was benched during the Utah State game and eventually scratched from the starting lineup for the game against Texas El Paso. You know Bert’s desperate when he has to start a quarterback that started his collegiate career at Wisconsin. Joel Stave (#2), the redshirt freshman and Napoleon Dynamite doppelganger, started the rest of the way before succumbing to a season-ending injury in the loss to Michigan State. Now, Bert has to go to yet another quarterback who started his collegiate career at Wisconsin: Curt Phillips (#10). The redshirt senior is finally getting his opportunity after being passed on multiple occasions by incoming ACC transfers, in addition to having to deal with three ACL surgeries. Phillips is nimble on the boot-action, but not necessarily fast by any means. Still, the play action is a huge part of what Wisconsin does because of the Badgers’ success in running the ball. Phillips will start in his final home game at Camp Randall, but perhaps O’Brien will get a series or two if things aren’t working for Phillips.
Montee Ball (#28), pronounced Mon-tee Ball, is infinitely better than Montee Ball, pronounced Mon-tay Ball. Mon-tee became Mon-tay in the preseason after a successful junior campaign that saw him invited to New York City for the Heisman ceremony, citing that his name was always pronounced Mon-tay and that no one ever bothered to ask him how his name should be pronounced. However, Mon-tay Ball sucked to begin this season. At the end of October, he was Mon-tee again. In the month of October, Montee Ball was electric. Starting with a somewhat meager 93 yards on 31 carries against Nebrasky in September, Ball has been well above 100 yards every game since, barring the 46 yard effort against Michigan State. He had 116 yards on 19 carries against Illinois, 247 yards on 29 carries against Purdue, 166 on 24 carries against Minnesota, and 198 yards on 27 carries against Indiana last week. In short, he’s basically been above 6.0 yards per carry in league play. He needs just two more touchdowns this season to secure the record for most career touchdowns in NCAA history. With that in mind, he has also had some help from James White (#20), the junior from the St. Thomas Aquinas program in Florida. White has 647 rushing yards on the season to complement Ball’s 1226 yards, including 124 yards against Purdue, 175 yards against Minnesota, and 161 yards against Indiana. The method of attack is familiar for Ohio State fans. Wisconsin’s base play is outside zone from a 12 (one back, two tight ends) set. Wisconsin will run this every single play of every single game if it will continue working. If defenses overcommit or slant playside, Wisconsin counters with inside zone and power, in addition to the jet sweeps and downfield passing game on play action. This is nothing fancy, but it is very effective.
Wisconsin does not have a very proficient passing game, which is mostly a result of the proclivity to run the ball. Still, there are a lot of negative things that can be said about the Badgers’ 112th ranked passing game, including the quarterback play overall and lack of receiving threats. Jared Abbrederis (#4) is the receiving game, and he’s a handful. He averages 76 receiving yards a game and has 689 yards and five touchdowns on the season. In most applications, he’s a top 50 receiver nationally. That said, he does get about 18 yards a touch, which is 21st nationally.2 The strength of Ohio State’s defense is at cornerback, which is good. Still, safety problems persist, which could be perilous for the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon. Wisconsin is mostly a two wide receiver offense, but with receiving threats at the two tight ends (really: one tight end, one H-back/fullback). As such, the second leading receiver on the team is the tight end, Jacob Pedersen (#48). Pedersen has 18 catches for 264 yards and three touchdowns, with his best effort coming against Purdue (four catches, 77 yards, one TD). Pedersen is most effective on play action, especially on drag routes and P/A releases. The other starting receiver is Jordan Frederick (#9), a redshirt freshman with 12 catches and 146 yards in 2012. Derek Watt (#34), JJ’s little brother, is listed at fullback. Wisconsin does not have a lot of weapons in the receiving game. What credible options they do have are contingent on the run game working, setting up play action or allowing Abbrederis to work against a softer coverage shell that is focused on the run.
In most of these previews, I could probably skip the discussion of the offensive line. I’m not sure anyone really reads that part anyways, and most offensive lines in the conference are kind of forgettable. That can’t be said about Wisconsin’s unit. Bert fired his new offensive line coach, Mike Markuson, two weeks into the season, replacing him with a graduate assistant, Bart Miller, who is just in his second year at Wisconsin (and has only a handful of years in coaching altogether). I’m not convinced that “did the trick”, or if it was simply an awkward transition period from Bob Bostad that would have solved itself given a few weeks. Regardless, Wisconsin’s offensive line looks par for its usual course right now. The star of the unit is, unsurprisingly, a left tackle. Ricky Wagner (#58) didn’t look good at all to start the season, but has played his way back into discussion as a late first round or early second round draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Redshirt junior Travis Frederick (#72), the center, is almost assuredly going to be a first round pick whenever he decides to declare. In between both is left guard Ryan Groy (#79), who started four games last year and all ten games for Wisconsin this year. The Badgers are at least a bit suspect on the right side of the line. Right guard Kyle Costigan (#54) was a defensive tackle last year. Right tackle Rob Havenstein (#78) is in his first season as a starter. Both Costigan and Havenstein are redshirt sophomores who, on paper, look the part. In fact, every Badger offensive line is at least four bratwurst breakfasts over 300 pounds.
I’m not sure what can be said about Wisconsin’s defense. They clearly miss JJ Watt, but they never recruited him anyways. Wisconsin’s defense is a “lunch pail” type of defense, which gets results based on a committed effort from solid players rather than a good effort from very talented players. The Badgers have the best rushing defense in the conference, though I’m not particularly wowed with A) who the Badgers have played, and B) holding players like Le’Veon Bell to 77 yards on 21 carries (Ohio State limited him to 45 yards on 17 carries) and conceding 259 yards rushing to the Cornhuskers. The Badgers have some nice pieces on defense, though the nicest of them all may see limited action against the Buckeyes due to a hamstring injury.
The Badgers employ a base 4-3 and really don’t get the kind of production they need from their defensive line. In the Rose Bowl, I think this basically cost them the game. It also played a huge role in why Ohio State beat them last year. Wisconsin’s defensive line is unexceptional in every category and can be fairly easily blocked. Carson York, Oregon’s left guard last year, did he wanted to Wisconsin’s interior defensive line, which makes Wisconsin’s quality linebacker crew very susceptible to second level blocks in a zone blocking scheme. Defensive ends are Pat Muldoon (#92) and David Gilbert (#11), both redshirt juniors who are around the 250lb mark. Gilbert is easily the most productive member of the defensive line, tallying seven TFLs and four sacks on the season. Muldoon averages a tackle for loss every other game. Beau Allen (#96) and Ethan Hemer (#87) are the defensive tackles. Both Allen and Hemer are comfortably above 300lbs (and, I guess, on the Wisconsin offensive line diet), but only Allen has been sort of productive this year (5.5 TFLs). Hemer has been very quiet. Against your Illinis and Boilermakers, this unit is fine. Against more potent rushing attacks, this unit is susceptible.
Wisconsin’s strength is again the linebacker corp, though no one is really sure what Chris Borland‘s (#44) status is for this game. Borland, the middle linebacker, is second on the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and leads the team in sacks. However, his status is uncertain as a result of a hamstring injury. If he is unable to go on Saturday afternoon, expect Marcus Trotter (#59) to get the nod. Trotter has just three game appearances this season. Wisconsin will still have Mike Taylor (#53) for this game. The senior weakside linebacker leads Wisconsin in everything on which Borland doesn’t lead. This includes a team high 95 tackles, including notching 15 tackles twice (v. Utah State, @ Nebrasky). Ethan Armstrong (#36) is the third linebacker and is third on the team in tackles, but expect Taylor (and, if he plays, Borland) to do most of the attacking at the line of scrimmage vis-a-vis Ohio State’s run game.
Wisconsin’s secondary is usually a unit of some overachievers and solid players, who are otherwise vulnerable to the passing game altogether (example). Wisconsin’s defense right now is seventh in the B1G TEN in passing defense, conceding 206 yards a game through the air. As this is the B1G TEN, that is definitely saying something. Wisconsin’s secondary is a veteran unit. Cornerbacks Devin Smith (#10) and Marcus Cromartie (#14), both seniors from the state of Texas, have 50 starts between them. Smith is Wisconsin’s “lockdown” guy, earning preseason All-B1G consideration from Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. He leads the team with 10 passes broken up, three interceptions, and is 4th on the team in tackles, which is not bad at all for a cornerback. Safeties are Shelton Johnson (#24), a senior, and Dezmen Southward (#12), a junior. Southward is active in run support and has five tackles for loss. Johnson is a two year starter.
Wisconsin wins if… Montee Ball has 100 yards or Ball and James White combine for over 150 yards. The story is the same for Wisconsin. Any defense that faces them can’t let the base plays work. Ohio State’s defensive line, which is solid against the run, needs to take away outside zone like it did against Penn State’s similar offense. Ohio State held Penn State to 32 rushing yards, which greatly limited Penn State’s ability to find its army of tight ends on play action. Wisconsin has better players, definitely at the skill position if not at quarterback, but Ohio State needs similar success. Essentially, Ohio State’s ideal game against Wisconsin will resemble Michigan State’s performance against the Badgers in Madison. In that game, Sparty held Montee Ball to 46 yards on 22 carries and held James White to 16 yards on 7 carries. In addition, it sacked the Jesus out of Wisconsin’s quarterbacks, beating the Badgers 16-13 in overtime. Ohio State’s offense should fare better against the Badgers than Michigan State’s offense did.
Ohio State wins if… it can complete over 40% of its third down opportunities, preferably half or more. Wisconsin is somewhat woeful this year on completing its own opportunities third down, which is a stark contrast from last year’s offense. Still, it’s rather good this year in getting off the field on third down. In 153 third down opportunities against Wisconsin’s defense, the Badgers have gotten off the field 69% of the time. This is good for second in the B1G TEN.3 If Wisconsin is vulnerable to a team like the Buckeyes, as I believe, then Ohio State needs to use these opportunities to keep its offense on the field. With Montee Ball and his brick wall of offensive linemen on the sideline watching, bad may get worse for Wisconsin’s defense as the game progresses.
- Another assistant, DelVaughn Alexander, returned home to Arizona to be the WRs coach for Arizona State. [↩]
- For those curious, Devin Smith is 4th nationally in this category, averaging 21 yards a reception. [↩]
- Incidentally, Illinois leads the league in opponent third down conversions, mostly because Illinois concedes first downs on first and second down, bypassing third down altogether. [↩]