INDIANAPOLIS — Urban Meyer changed the game in Big Ten Conference football.
Upon bringing his aggressive, SEC-style recruiting mentality to the conference three years ago, the Ohio State coach pushed the staid Big Ten into a new era. With a roster of four- and five-star recruits, the Buckeyes are a record 24-0 in Big Ten regular-season conference games under Meyer.
Gary Andersen entered the Big Ten a year after Meyer, but with much less fanfare.
The University of Wisconsin coach promotes a family atmosphere and avoids confrontation at all costs. Yet, Andersen, with a roster of mostly three-star or lower recruits, has a chance to take down the conference’s gold standard when 11th-ranked UW plays sixth-ranked Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game tonight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The two old friends — Andersen was on Meyer’s staff during Utah’s 12-0 season in 2004 — met on the podium between news conferences Friday and the lovefest that ensued between Andersen, Meyer, Andersen’s wife and Meyer’s teenage son held up the proceedings for 5 to 10 minutes. That made time-conscious Big Ten Network executives nervous and proved opposites do indeed attract.
When both coaches spoke to the media, however, it was apparent Ohio State isn’t the only team in this game that expects to win the Big Ten title. And not just this year, either. Every year.
“The way I was raised, from my first time I walked into Ohio State when I was 21 years old, when you decide to play athletics, football in particular, you’re measured by championships,” Meyer said.
But when asked if he viewed the Ohio State program as the benchmark for the conference, Andersen politely said no.
“I think we all look at ourselves as an elite team within the conference,” he said. “Why wouldn’t you, if that’s where you’re at?”
In one respect, UW has more right to claim elite status than Ohio State. The Badgers won the first two Big Ten championship games in 2011 and 2012. The Buckeyes finally reached the final last season, but they lost to a very good Michigan State team.
Still, even Andersen admits this will be a matchup of Ohio State’s ability to recruit top players and UW’s ability to develop them.
“(They have) really, really good players,” he said. “That’s always been the problem. There’s talent all over that field. They’ve done a tremendous job of recruiting. Recruiting’s everything in this business. Coaching is way overrated. They’ve got good players that you have to deal with and they are coached the right way. They have a plan on offense and defense to give their best players the opportunity to make plays. That’s the most concerning thing to me.”
It should be. Ohio State has always been able to recruit premier talent, but what has set it apart under Meyer is he takes advantage of that talent by working to put the playmakers in positions to do what they do best. That means UW must play mistake-free football to limit the opportunities for big plays by the Buckeyes in a game complicated by a huge quarterback question at Ohio State.
Sophomore Cardale Jones will be making his first collegiate start at quarterback after freshman sensation J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week. Barrett, who replaced injured Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller on the eve of the season, himself had become a Heisman candidate.
Despite Ohio State starting a third-string quarterback, most consider the game a toss-up, which is a tribute to the Buckeyes’ overall strength. Still, UW has several ways it might be able to negate Ohio State’s advantages in speed and athleticism.
• It has the lesson learned from last year’s title game, when the team with the Big Ten’s best defense (Michigan State) beat the team with the best offense (Ohio State). Tonight’s game features the same matchup.
• UW finally has experience winning tight and/or tough games after successfully running a gauntlet of Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota the past three weeks. The Badgers had struggled in close games for years.
• There is more pressure on Ohio State because it is fifth in the latest CFP poll and needs an impressive win to secure a spot in the four-team playoff. If the Badgers can keep it close, the Buckeyes might become frustrated.
• UW has tailback Melvin Gordon, the nation’s leading rusher and Meyer’s No. 1 worry. Despite a talented line and great speed on defense, the Buckeyes haven’t always performed well against the many premier backs in the Big Ten.
• Like Barrett early in the season, it might take Jones time to get his feet under him in his first start. Meyer said Jones will benefit from having an experienced cast around him, a luxury Barrett didn’t have.
• Finally, Jones is a run-first quarterback with a strong arm, but he has yet to prove he can pass the ball with touch, accuracy and anticipation. Although Meyer said that wasn’t a worry, Jones’ ability to pass efficiently could well determine the outcome because UW’s defense has been stellar against the run. If the Buckeyes can’t throw the ball, they’re probably not going to beat the Badgers.