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Tom Oates: Underdog Badgers better, more confident this time vs. Ohio State
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Tom Oates: Underdog Badgers better, more confident this time vs. Ohio State

From the Get ready for the Big Ten Championship Game with State Journal coverage series
UW football photo

UW defenders team up to tackle Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins during the Oct. 26 game in Columbus, Ohio. Stopping Dobbins will be key if the Badgers are to be successful in Saturday night's Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s not often a college football team gets a do-over.

The University of Wisconsin, which couldn’t stay within shouting distance of Ohio State six weeks ago, will get a second chance to topple the rampaging Buckeyes in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.

It would rock the football world if the Badgers could somehow avenge that earlier 38-7 loss in Columbus and take down an Ohio State juggernaut that might be talented enough and complete enough to contend in the NFC East.

But that’s not what the Badgers are here for. Their national title hopes damaged beyond repair due to a still-mystifying loss at Illinois, they want the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl berth that almost certainly would accompany it should they upend the heavily favored Buckeyes.

“It would mean a lot,” senior linebacker Chris Orr said. “I think more so for me it would be (important) for us to leave as champions. That would mean more to me, more so than saying like, ‘Oh, you stopped Ohio State.’ To leave as a Big Ten champion would mean the world to me.”

The Badgers had to recover from back-to-back season-shattering losses to Illinois and Ohio State to even give themselves this opportunity. Now they’re 10-2 and sitting at No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff selection committee rankings, making them the highest-rated two-loss team.

But Ohio State, which was never threatened en route to a 12-0 record, is ranked No. 1. And to most of the nation, the difference between No. 1 and No. 8 is too vast to think UW can make the rematch any more competitive than the first game was.

UW is 4-0 since losing to Ohio State and has played better each game, culminating with last week’s road rout of then-No. 9 Minnesota. Now the Badgers get the Buckeyes at a neutral site and in a potentially vulnerable position. Ohio State is coming off back-to-back games against Penn State and Michigan and might lack a sense of urgency since it is expected to make the playoff field even with a loss. The Badgers also should benefit from having already experienced Ohio State’s speed and schemes.

In the end, though, the game will come down to whether UW is better-equipped to deal with Ohio State’s speed and playmaking ability on both sides of the ball than it was on Oct. 26. The Badgers think they are, and they’re right.

“We learned a lot about ourselves from playing them,” center Tyler Biadasz said. “And you’ve played them before, so you have a good idea of what they’re going to do and their personnel. We’ve been playing good football, and we’re going to continue to do that. We were a little shaky in that game (at Columbus), but it’s a different atmosphere, it’s going to be in a different stadium. We’re a different team now than we were then.”

And a better team than they were then. The Badgers have diversified their offense since that loss. On defense, they’ve learned more about how to stop spread offenses like Ohio State’s.

UW was within 10-7 in the third quarter of the first meeting before Ohio State blew it open, but in reality the game was never close. The Badgers had a season-low 191 yards on offense, and their defense, which went into the game ranked first in the nation, allowed 421 yards. Only Nebraska, another spread team, piled up more yardage on UW.

Ohio State limited UW tailback Jonathan Taylor to a season-low 52 rushing yards, and UW didn’t have a Plan B, especially with end Chase Young sacking quarterback Jack Coan four times. UW’s defense struggled to stop the dual-threat running attack of tailback J.K. Dobbins and quarterback Justin Fields, leading to big plays for the Buckeyes.

Things have changed since then, however. UW’s stabilized offensive line is dominating the line of scrimmage and the defense, plagued by alignment errors and missed tackles in the first meeting, has gradually improved after facing a series of spread offenses.

“There’s no question I think we are a better team,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I think you could make an argument they’re a better team as well. The one thing I do feel good about through this past month is we’ve had guys continuing to step up. Some are new names that are contributing and helping and some are names that had been playing but I think are playing at a better level.”

UW’s loss to Illinois takes it out of the CFP discussion, but it likely would represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl with a victory. The Badgers might still go to the Rose Bowl with a close loss, though Penn State, which is also 10-2, is ranked 10th and could be in play there because it only lost to Ohio State by 11.

But no one knows what the CFP committee is thinking and, besides, UW isn’t interested in a close loss. Nor do the Badgers think it will require a perfect game for them to win.

“It’s hard to play a perfect game,” Orr said. “Nobody has done that, especially in a championship game. You just need to play winning football.”

Winning football for the Badgers would include being extremely physical along both lines, reducing mental mistakes and winning more one-on-one battles than they did in Columbus. That’s easier said than done against Ohio State, but UW’s improvement at least gives it a chance.

<&rdpStrong>No. 10 Badgers vs. No. 2 Ohio State: Who has the edge?</&rdpStrong>

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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