8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Ohio State -11, Over/Under: 44
A Top-10 showdown highlights a Saturday chock full of action, as the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Camp Randall Stadium to face the eighth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers in a pivotal Big Ten matchup. Many in the College Football world felt that this season was going to be a down year for Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 in Big Ten), who lost a wealth top-end talent to the NFL Draft last year, expecting Urban Meyer’s outfit to take a step or two back as they reloaded with some younger, fresher faces. However, don’t tell these Buckeyes that, for they’ve looked every bit as imposing in 2016 as they did in 2015. Indeed, the youth movement is on in Columbus, as the Buckeyes continue to hum along with a brand new group of future pros. Redshirt Freshman Mike Weber has taken ownership of the backfield, leading the team with 566 rushing yards on a healthy 6.8 yards per carry, and finding the End Zone four times. In their stunning 45-24 thumping of Oklahoma in Norman back on September 17th, Weber ran wild over the Sooners’ Defense, accumulating 123 yards on eighteen carries. And speaking of that beatdown of Bob Stoops’ outfit, another youngster, Sophomore Receiver Noah Brown, used that stage as his Coming Out Party. After missing Redshirting his Sophomore season, Brown exploded against Oklahoma, reeling in five catches for a career-high seventy-two yards and four, count them four, touchdowns. Granted, he’s been relatively quiet since (thirty-one yards on three catches), but the potential is clearly there for another breakout performance, particularly against another high profile opponent. Of course, utilizing these explosive young talents is the old man of the unit, Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who had to patiently bide his time last season behind Cardale Jones, and is now the undisputed Starter. Clearly, he’s all better for it; Barrett has completed 64.2% of his passes for 981 yards (8.0 y/a), fifteen touchdowns and just three interceptions, while also tormenting opposing defenses with his legs, rushing for 342 yards (4.9 y/a) and four more scores. In last weekend’s 38-17 victory over Indiana, the duel-threat had to make up for a rather poor passing performance (9-of-21, 93 yards, one touchdown, one interception) with his legs, carrying the offense with a game-high 137 yards and a score on a whopping twenty-six carries. In a game that was a lot closer than the final score would indicate, the Buckeyes’ youth and inexperience finally began to make itself known, as they were penalized nine times for eighty-three yards. With that said, the Defense, as they’ve continued to do throughout the campaign, has been the driving force of this team, limiting the Hoosiers a total of 281 yards, including ninety-nine on the ground despite rushing the ball a staggering forty times. Sophomore Safety Malik Hooker snared his fourth interception, as the group made a series of key stops as the visitors threatened to cut the deficit on a number of occasions. That’s nothing for a unit that has allowed a paltry 10.8 points per game thus far (3rd Overall) on 246.6 total yards, including 148.6 through the air on a scant 46.1% passing, and another 98.0 yards on the ground on a miniscule 2.8 yards per carry, while registering thirteen takeaways. Meyer’s charges haven’t faced the Badgers since blasting them in the Big Ten Championship Game two years ago (59-0!!!), and haven’t traveled to Madison, Wisconsin since 2012, where they earned a narrow 21-14 victory. However, their last loss in this series took place at Camp Randall Stadium, a 31-18 affair back in 2010.
Meanwhile, tonight’s meeting is a crucial one for Wisconsin (4-1, 1-1 in Big Ten), who after a well-deserved Bye Week get the opportunity to square off with another Top-5 team. Two weeks ago, the undefeated Badgers traveled to Ann Arbor to test their mettle against the unbeaten Wolverines, and despite going blow for blow with the third-ranked team in the country, suffered a critical late gaffe en route to a heartbreaking 14-7 loss. It was a good old fashioned defensive struggle, as the teams combined for just 508 total yards of offense, with the visiting side contributing a mere 159 yards. Ultimately, three turnovers did in Paul Chryst’s charges, who struggled to move the ball throughout the affair, as Freshman Quarterback Alex Hornibrook tossed three interceptions, the last of which effectively ended the game in the Fourth Quarter. Now, Wisconsin faces the very distinct possibility of falling out of contention in the Big Ten, which in turn will shatter any possibilities they have of being one of the four teams selected in the annual College Football Playoff. Waist-deep in the troublesome part of their schedule, the Badgers will travel to Iowa next week, followed by a home confrontation with tenth-ranked Nebraska a week later, with both teams currently hovering above them in the standings. With that said, caliber of opponents aside, a major reason why this is such a daunting task is the presence of the aforementioned Hornibrook, a Redshirt Freshman who took over for Senior Quarterback Bart Houston late in victory over Akron. In four games, the kid hasn’t been asked to do much, completing 55.9% of his passes for a meager average of 116.5 yards per game (6.9 y/a), four touchdowns and five interceptions. In their shocking 30-8 drubbing of Michigan State in East Lansing, the Freshman was solid, connecting on 16-of-26 passing for 195 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but terrible showing against the Wolverines served as the equivalent of cold water to the face. Against the Buckeyes’ staunch defensive unit, he’s going to need to make better decisions and manage the game in an efficient manner. Of course that’s easier said than done, but there’s no doubt that his task would be much less daunting if the Badgers’ vaunted rushing attack returned to it’s burly, imposing form. When you think of Wisconsin Football, you think of a physical running game featuring prolific rushers such as Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, and most recently Melvin Gordon, along with a host of Offensive Lineman now plying their trade in the NFL. From Barry Alvarez to Brett Bielema to Chryst, that’s what this program is all about. However, in 2016 this team has been far from dominant on the ground, averaging just 161.6 yards on a modest 3.8 yards per carry. That’s eighth in the conference, folks, which needless to say is very un-Wisconsin-like. These guys must establish a presence in the trenches in order to alleviate the pressure off the shoulders of their young Quarterback, otherwise this game could get ugly, rather quickly. Fortunately, their defense figures to keep things close; the Badgers have yielded the fourth-fewest points in the country (12.2) on 291.4 total yards, including 201.0 via the pass and another 90.4 via the run on just 3.1 yards per carry, while logging fifteen sacks and ten takeaways. As an added note, expect this to be a close one, folks, for aside from that aforementioned 59-0 devastation in 2014, these meetings are typically tight; their previous four meetings have been decided by one possession, or an average differential of 4.5 points.
Predicted Outcome: Ohio State 23, Wisconsin 17