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.”
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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>
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
Since the Badgers were shut down offensively against Ohio State in October, the offense has been more diverse and open to taking shots down the field. Receiver Quintez Cephus (above) had 18 catches, 310 yards and three touchdown receptions in November as he and quarterback Jack Coan displayed a great connection. Cephus torched Minnesota’s secondary for two big plays, including a 47-yard touchdown, on the same third-quarter drive last week.
Cephus’ big day against the Gophers was aided by their insistence to slow down junior tailback Jonathan Taylor, but he still had three total touchdowns to improve to a nation-best 25 this season.
Along with the use of jet sweeps and jet motion to threaten to edges of run defenses, UW debuted end-around runs last week, one of which turned into a 26-yard touchdown for receiver Kendric Pryor. The added layers to the offense helped the Badgers average 36 points and 503.5 yards of offense over the past four games.
UW must do a better job against Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy-caliber defensive end Chase Young in this rematch. Young controlled the line, tallied four sacks, and forced Coan to fumble twice in October. Young leads the FBS with 16½ sacks.
Even if the Badgers contain Young, the Buckeyes’ defense possesses tremendous speed at the second and third levels. Linebacker Malik Harrison leads Ohio State with 63 total tackles and he has 16 for loss. Jeff Okudah is one of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten, and he has three interceptions and six pass breakups this season.
EDGE | PUSH
WHEN THE BUCKEYES HAVE THE BALL
J.K. Dobbins (above) was motivated to be the best running back on the field when these teams met in October, and he had one of his best games of the season against UW. Dobbins, a junior, racked up 163 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, and added 58 yards on three catches.
He and sophomore quarterback Justin Fields were a nearly unstoppable tandem in Ohio State’s backfield — Fields had 28 yards and a touchdown rushing, and threw two touchdowns to receiver Chris Olave. When Dobbins occasionally comes off the field, backup Master Teague (780 yards, four touchdowns) has shown similar explosiveness and big-play ability. UW had success pressuring Fields, sacking him five times, and it will need a similar pass-rush effort to keep Fields uncomfortable in the rematch.
Questions remain regarding how well the Badgers defense can slow an option-based spread offense with a mobile quarterback like Ohio State’s. That scheme gave UW fits in the first matchup, and against Nebraska in the middle of November. Led by cornerback Caesar Williams’ four pass breakups, the Badgers’ secondary held its own against Minnesota’s pair of star receivers last week, and held the Gophers without a touchdown for nearly 52 game minutes. Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand were stellar on the interior defensive line against Minnesota, collapsing the line and stifling the inside run, and need to be again to slow down Dobbins.
EDGE | OHIO STATE
In all but one area, the Badgers’ special teams have also experienced a big turnaround in the past month.
Senior Zach Hintze (above) took over as the placekicker last week against Minnesota, made a short field goal and went 5-for-5 on point-after tries. He also made a 62-yard field goal to set a modern-era program record against Purdue.
UW pulled off a reverse on a kick return last week to gain a total of 56 yards and set up a short touchdown drive. The Badgers led the Big Ten in kickoff return average at 25.9 yards per return this season.
Senior punter Anthony Lotti is struggling as his career wraps up — over the past three games, his eight punts have averaged 35.3 yards.
Ohio State punt returner Garrett Wilson lost a fumble against Michigan, and its kick coverage has been average throughout the season.
EDGE | PUSH
Ryan Day has guided the Buckeyes to an unbeaten regular season in his first year. His offense has generated two Heisman Trophy candidates and made so many games blowouts that he could pull starters early and keep them fresh for a postseason run.
Co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison (above) and Jeff Hafley have maximized Young’s potential and have directed their unit to be one of college football’s best.
UW coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph have done well creating new looks for the offense late in the season, but how they deploy those wrinkles against the Buckeyes will be key, as will defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s adjustments on defense.
EDGE | PUSH
Ohio State is all but assured to be one of the top two seeds in the College Football Playoff with a win over the Badgers, but UW has a good amount to gain as well.
A win over the Buckeyes almost definitely sends UW to the Rose Bowl, and gives it an outside shot at the Playoff.
Playing in the domed Lucas Oil Stadium, weather won’t be a factor like it was in the first game between these teams, but the Badgers will have to contend with Ohio State’s speed at an indoor facility.
EDGE | OHIO STATE
STATE JOURNAL'S PICK
UW’s offense has dramatically improved since the last time it played Ohio State, but the Buckeyes’ roster is just a notch above UW’s this season. If Ohio State continues to give the ball away, the Badgers have a chance, but the Buckeyes stay unbeaten in a relatively close game.
OHIO STATE 31, BADGERS 20
THE NUMBER (UW)
11.5: UW’s Zack Baun and Chris Orr are the only pair of teammates from a Power Five program to have 10 or more sacks each this season
THE NUMBER (OHIO STATE)
4: Fumbles lost in the past two weeks for OSU, which led to 13 points for its opponents
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Sacks allowed: UW finished second in the Big Ten with 18 sacks allowed, but five of those came against OSU. Allowing Coan time to find receivers will be essential in the rematch.
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Third-down percentage: The Buckeyes lead the Football Bowl Subdivision in converting 58.3 percent of third-down tries
Video: Do the Badgers have a chance to pull the upset against Buckeyes?
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com.