Wisconsin football: 3 keys, prediction for Ohio State game

No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0) plays No. 8 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1) in the Big Ten Championship Game Saturday (at 7:17 p.m. CT , FOX) in Indianapolis. With a victory, the Badgers are assured of a spot in the College Football Playoff and can vie for a national title for the first time.

As football games go, there is little disagreement this is one of the most significant in the history of Wisconsin’s program, given what is at stake. While Wisconsin has routinely competed for league championships and January bowl games, a strong performance Saturday could elevate the Badgers to new heights. No pressure, right?

Here are three keys to the Ohio State game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.

1. Contain Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett

J.T. Barrett has been special throughout his Ohio State career, and he is perhaps the greatest individual threat to Wisconsin’s playoff hopes. He is 36-6 as a starter with the Buckeyes and has thrown 33 touchdowns with 7 interceptions this season. But his running ability is something the Badgers will have to account for Saturday. He has 672 yards rushing with 9 touchdowns on the season.

Barrett sustained a right knee injury in the regular-season finale against Michigan last Saturday but is expected to play against Wisconsin. According to The Columbus Dispatch, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on the knee Sunday to remove a piece of torn meniscus that had bothered him throughout the season. Whether Barrett’s injury impacts his ability to run Saturday remains to be seen.

During Ohio State’s 30-23 overtime victory against Wisconsin last season, Barrett pestered the Badgers when he escaped the pocket and ran. He got loose in the second half and scored touchdowns on runs of 1 and 8 yards. For the game, he had 21 carries for 92 yards.

Badgers outside linebacker Garret Dooley was asked this week about the difficulty playing against Barrett.

“He’s been a playmaker for as long as he’s been starting,” Dooley said. “I know when he’s going, their offense is going. He’s definitely one of the guys who can make nothing into something and make it very explosive. So we have to make sure that we can try to contain him in the pocket, and you have to account for him in the run game.

“As a defense, you have to make sure you win your 1-on-1 tackles because sometimes it’s going to be hard to get two or three guys there because you have the quarterback in the run.”

Wisconsin’s defense has been exceptional and ranks in the top 2 nationally in all four major statistical categories: run defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. But Ohio State ranks fourth in the nation in total offense and fifth in scoring offense, at 43.8 points per game. It will be a great opportunity to see if the Badgers can thrive on the biggest stage yet.

2. Have a turnover-free game

Is this asking too much for a Wisconsin team that has committed 21 turnovers this season? Perhaps. That total ranks tied for 96th in the FBS and is totally uncharacteristic of Badgers teams we’ve seen in recent seasons. But Wisconsin will have to play its best game of the season to give itself a chance against Ohio State.

That starts with quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was tremendous against Minnesota in the regular-season finale. Hornibrook completed 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. It marked his first Big Ten game without an interception this season. Hornibrook has shown against teams such as Utah State, BYU and Minnesota that he can play mistake-free football. But can he do it again an Ohio State defense that will be barreling down on him and providing minimal time to throw?

Hornibrook was tossed into the fire early last season as a redshirt freshman, and he did some impressive things against Ohio State. In that game, he completed 16 of 28 passes for 214 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. He also took a fourth-down sack near the goal line in overtime. But that game, like so many others this season, has helped Hornibrook reach this point. It’s time for him to step up to the challenge.

Meanwhile, running back Jonathan Taylor has had his own issues with turnovers this season. Taylor lost his fifth fumble of the season against Minnesota. The problem is concerning enough that running backs coach John Settle has had Taylor carry a football with him around campus.

“Whatever works,” Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “Sett’s got a great way with those guys, does a tremendous job with his room. Having those things sink in and be fundamental to what you do has got to be huge for us this week.”

3. Keep Ohio State’s defense honest

Despite Taylor’s fumbling issues, he has been phenomenal in his freshman season. He has rushed for 1,806 yards and needs 120 yards to break Adrian Peterson’s FBS freshman record of 1,925. Taylor also has carried 258 times this season, which is the seventh-most in the FBS. Wisconsin needs Taylor to produce yet another big game against Ohio State, and the Buckeyes know it. The smart play for Ohio State, then, is to stack the box and make Hornibrook beat the Buckeyes’ defensive backs in 1-on-1 coverage.

Wisconsin has demonstrated throughout the season that it has the necessary receiving weapons to be multi-dimensional. Troy Fumagalli, the Big Ten tight end of the year, has 38 catches for 471 yards and 4 touchdowns. The wide receiver trio of Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor has combined for 49 catches for 809 yards and 7 touchdowns.

Hornibrook is going to need his offensive line to protect him better than in any game this season. And the Badgers’ young receivers will have to prove they can gain separation on some elite-level defensive backs. Jonathan Taylor is exceptional, but he’ll need help from his teammates to make Ohio State respect Wisconsin’s passing game.

Prediction

Wisconsin is the only undefeated Power 5 conference team remaining, and yet Ohio State opened the week as a 6½-point favorite. That ought to tell you what many people think will happen in the Big Ten Championship Game. But these Badgers haven’t really cared what others have said the entire season. They have been able to block out questions about Wisconsin’s schedule strength, where the Badgers deserve to be ranked and how good they really are.

Having covered the team all season, it’s obvious there is a special quality about this group. That can be hard to quantify, but I felt the same thing two years ago before Wisconsin’s basketball team knocked off undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four. Sometimes, you just know it when you see it. The Badgers are on the cusp of the College Football Playoff for the first time and are good enough to win a national title. They can make program history with a victory Saturday. To echo an oft-repeated line once uttered by former Badgers O-lineman Joe Panos: “Why not Wisconsin?” Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 24.

Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10

Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14

Game 3 prediction: Wisconsin 27, BYU 10; Game 3 score: Wisconsin 40, BYU 6

Game 4 prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13; Game 4 score: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 24

Game 5 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17; Game 5 score: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17

Game 6 prediction: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 14; Game 6 score: Wisconsin 17, Purdue 9

Game 7 prediction: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 17; Game 7 score: Wisconsin 38, Maryland 13

Game 8 prediction: Wisconsin 42, Illinois 10; Game 8 score: Wisconsin 24, Illinois 10

Game 9 prediction: Wisconsin 35, Indiana 17; Game 9 score: Wisconsin 45, Indiana 17

Game 10 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Iowa 17; Game 10 score: Wisconsin 38, Iowa 14

Game 11 prediction: Wisconsin 20, Michigan 14; Game 11 score: Wisconsin 24, Michigan 10

Game 12 prediction: Wisconsin 38, Minnesota 10; Game 12 score: Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 0

The post Wisconsin football: 3 keys, prediction for Ohio State game appeared first on Land of 10.

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