Ohio State matchup Thursday: Week 9 vs Wisconsin
College football in 2019 often seems like a never-ending highlight reel of long passes, high-tech offenses and pinball machine scores.
Just 30 years ago, in 1989, eight teams in Division I-A averaged 35 points a game for the season. In 2019 there are 33 FBS teams averaging that many points.
This season 18 teams are averaging at least 300 yards per game passing. In 1989, just eight teams did so.
So in a way, Saturday’s game between Ohio State and Wisconsin, though it will feature plenty of fast and talented athletes, will be a testament to three old-fashioned yet enduring football principles.
Run the ball. Block. Tackle.
Ohio State, ranked third in the Associated Press poll, is also third in the nation in rushing offense at 287.1 yards per game. No. 13 Wisconsin leads the nation in rushing defense at 58.4 yards per game.
That is the matchup to watch on Saturday (noon ET, Fox) at Ohio Stadium.
Wisconsin’s run defense vs. OSU’s running game
Whatever J.K. Dobbins, Master Teague or the OSU offensive line can throw at the Wisconsin defense, the Badgers see something pretty similar in practice every day in All-American running back Jonathan Taylor.
There are two ESPN midseason All-Americans clashing when OSU’s running backs and O-line meet up with Wisconsin’s front seven: Buckeyes guard Wyatt Davis and Badgers linebacker Zack Baun.
Before the season much was made (including in this space) about the fact that Ohio State only had one returning starter on the offensive line, left tackle Thayer Munford (pictured).
But the Buckeyes, under fourth-year offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, have built an impressive resume in 2019. According to S&P advanced metrics, OSU’s offensive line is ranked in the top 10 nationally in four categories including first in stuff rate (percentage of runs stopped at or before the line of scrimmage). OSU has had just 11.1% of its runs stopped for no gain or a loss.
Perhaps more important, the Buckeyes have converted in clutch situations. OSU is ranked No. 6 in S&P’s Power Success Rate, defined as the percentage of times that a team converts a third-down or fourth-down run for a first down or touchdown when needing 2 yards or less. OSU has converted 90% of these situations — among Power 5 teams, only Oklahoma and Arizona have converted more frequently.
No wonder Dobbins is fourth in the nation in rushing yards per game at 135.3 yards a game (Wisconsin counterpart Taylor is third at 136.7 ypg).
Wisconsin’s defensive line is just as impressive, according to the numbers.
The Badgers rank in the nation’s top 10 in seven categories according to S&P metrics including second in both sack rate (14.1%) and in Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry at 1.5. S&P defines that latter stat as “raw, unadjusted per-carry line yardage for a team on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer).”
Of course one does not have to take that deep of a dive to find Wisconsin atop the defensive charts. The Badgers lead the nation in seven statistics on D including both rushing and passing yards — and thus, obviously, total defense — and in scoring defense at 7.6 yards per game.
This should also be an angry band of Badgers coming into the Horseshoe. Coming into last weekend, Wisconsin had only allowed 29 points all season and had posted four shutouts in six games, the first FBS team to do that since Minnesota in 1962. But Illinois gained the most total yards (315) and most rushing yards (141) against the Badgers all season in a stunning 24-23 victory that knocked Wisconsin from the unbeaten ranks.
That was the first time all season Wisconsin had allowed more than 100 rushing yards or 300 total yards in a game. OSU, by contrast, has gained at least 227 rushing yards in each game this season and has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in 6 straight games — only in the opener against Florida Atlantic did the Buckeyes fail to hit that number and they came extremely close at 4.9 ypc in that one.
Buckeyes dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields can throw all over the place and has the weapons to make Wisconsin’s secondary worried. And the Badgers defense has to account for Fields’ running ability as well.
But the battles up front and the ability of Dobbins and Teague to break tackles and create big plays behind their offensive line will be the key matchup to watch at The Horseshoe.