Ohio State vs. Wisconsin: Final thoughts ... and a prediction
Ohio State and Wisconsin looked like an exciting open to Big Ten play for both squads, each a reasonable and even leading hopeful for a division title and a meeting in Indianapolis (like the ones in 2014, 2017 and 2019).
But then Wisconsin stumbled its way into a 17-14 home loss to Washington State in Week 2. The unranked Badgers thus head into Columbus as 18.5-point underdogs. But the preseason version of Wisconsin still lurks, and there are a few concerning points for the Buckeyes.
The injury situation
Perhaps the biggest concern for Ohio State is the rash of injuries that have sidelined a number of Buckeyes, particularly on defense.
Running back TreVeyon Henderson missed most of last week’s game with Toledo, but his removal was apparently more precautionary than serious.
The concerns on the other side of the ball could be more pressing. Standout defensive lineman Mike Hall, safety Josh Proctor and defensive back Tanner McCalister all missed last week’s game, and it probably wasn’t coincidental that the Buckeyes allowed more yardage and points than they had in either of the season’s first 2 games.
A challenge in run defense
Wisconsin generally feels like the sort of team to give Ohio State trouble. After all, a year ago it was physical run games from Oregon and Michigan that knocked OSU out of the Playoff.
With 2021 freshman star Braelon Allen back, the Wisconsin running game has the potential to be punishing. But Allen has been inconsistent — Washington State held him to 4.7 yards per carry. A season ago, he had just 123 rushing yards combined against the 3 ranked teams that Wisconsin faced.
Meanwhile, Ohio State’s run defense has shown massive improvement. A year ago, the Buckeyes allowed 127 rushing yards per game and 3.7 per carry, including 4 games of 200+ rushing yards surrendered. This season, it’s 84 yards per game and 2.6 per carry.
Ohio State’s CJ Stroud sports the 4th best yardage per passing attempt in the nation at 11.1 yards. But uncharacteristically, Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz is 3rd, with 11.2 yards per attempt.
The Badgers have had only one 3,000-yard passing season in program history (Russell Wilson in 2011), but this season’s Badgers are apparently trying to hit the big-play pass. Mertz is particularly surprising as a passing-game star, because his 2021 numbers included just 6.9 yards per attempt, which was toward the bottom of the Big Ten’s passing stats.
Ohio State’s defensive struggles under Kerry Coombs didn’t include that particular category. Only once in Coombs’s 2 years as defensive coordinator did the Buckeyes allow 10 yards per pass attempt, and that was 10.3 to Alabama in the 2021 CFP title game loss.
Ohio State has won 8 straight in the series, and hasn’t lost to Wisconsin in Columbus since 2004. Two of the series’ last 3 meetings in Columbus were one-score games. But the last meeting at Ohio State, in 2019, was the outlier. In that game, Wisconsin blocked a punt and scored to pull within 10-7 in the third quarter, but then allowed 31 unanswered points.
The prediction …
The return of Jaxon Smith-Njigba was probably well-timed for the Buckeyes.
Wisconsin’s run defense has been solid, allowing only a single rush of 20+ yards on the season. With TreVeyon Henderson somewhat questionable, it may well be on CJ Stroud and the passing attack to have a big day.
Meanwhile, the Wisconsin offense in many ways fits the profile of the teams that gave the Buckeyes defense fits a year ago — solid running game, passing enough to chip away at the OSU secondary. If Wisconsin came into this game having taken care of Washington State by 2-3 scores, and if Kerry Coombs was still on the sidelines in Columbus, there would be a reasonable shot at an upset.
But Jim Knowles’ defense has been very different.
It’s worth remembering that against Washington State, Wisconsin ran reasonably well, passed for over 200 yards, gained the yardage edge by about 150 yards, and lost the game. This isn’t a reasonable shot at an upset.
Wisconsin will make some plays, particularly if the Buckeyes are being cautious and holding or limiting their injured starters. But there’s no indication that Wisconsin can control the Ohio State offense. This feels like a competitive game for a quarter or so, but in the end, Stroud passes for 350 yards and the Buckeyes roll.
Ohio State 42, Wisconsin 17