Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Game of Thrones: No. 4 Ohio State 31, No. 23 Wisconsin 24

If you told me Joel Stave would pass for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns against the Ohio State secondary, I probably would’ve told you the Badgers’ shot at pulling off the upset were pretty high.

Unfortunately for Stave, his one interception of the day allowed the Buckeyes to extend the lead to 31-14 late in the third quarter. Even taking into account the wildly productive connection between Stave and Jared Abbrederis all game long, Wisconsin is not built to operate at such a deficit.

With vague questions lingering about Braxton Miller’s ability to jump back into the action and operate like the fully operational Death Star—and not the partially built one in Episode 6—the opening minutes would prove crucial. Miller quickly dispelled any notions of rust, zinging a laser of a touchdown pass on a skinny post to Evan Spencer, who zoomed by freshman corner Sojourn Shelton as if he wasn’t there.

Later in the quarter, Stave found Abbrederis as the pocket began to collapse around him (who finished with a whopping 207 yards on 10 receptions), resulting in a 36-yard score and Bradley Roby on the ground in the 6'2'' receiver's wake.

Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s side of the ball had a rough go of it in terms of getting pressure on Miller. A few minutes after the Abbdrederis score, Miller rolled to his left and rocketed yet another laser, this time to Devin Smith in the corner of the end zone for six.

The Buckeyes added a field goal with 4:33 to go in the second, extending the lead to 17-7 and necessitating a response from the Badgers. Once again, Stave was up to the challenge, as he found Sam Arneson for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 1:30 to go in the first half. Entering the half down 17-14, on the road, with Miller looking like he was picking up exactly where he left off, would have been a perfect outcome for the underdogs.

Of course, the half did not end without more fireworks. Miller hit the speedy Philly Brown on a 40-yarder with one second left, sending the Badgers into the half down 10 and perhaps reminding UW fans of Miller's late game touchdown heave in the same stadium two years ago.

Other than Miller’s ability to exploit UW’s vulnerable secondary with ease, the biggest issue confronting the Badgers was the inability to do much on the ground, which is of course where they do their business. Melvin Gordon finished the day with 74 yards on 15 carries, making for a respectable mark of 4.9 yards per carry. However, his longest gain of the day was just 16; for a player who has made a living busting off long gains, the absence of such in this contest was one of several death knells for the Badgers in Columbus.

In even worse news for the Badgers, senior tailback James White managed just 31 yards of his own, albeit on only eight carries. White is no slouch when it comes to making big plays either, as his dynamic touchdown run against Purdue last week showed. Nonetheless, with Gordon unable to shake free, the Badgers needed more tough yardage from their senior back.

With that said, as Michigan fans know, getting production on the ground is contingent upon good blocking. For most of Saturday night, a Buckeye front seven that has been universally deemed talented but young and “raw” stuffed the UW ground game, forcing Stave to beat the Buckeyes through the air.

To Stave’s credit, he often did just that, albeit mostly to just one receiver. On that front, I have to say that although I haven’t seen nearly as much of Penn State’s Allen Robinson—who many deem the best receiver in the conference—it’s difficult for me to say that Abbrederis doesn’t deserve that distinction.

With the Badgers down 10 entering the second half, an early third quarter score would be a healing salve on a 10-point wound that threatened to become fatal.

The Badgers forced a Buckeye punt, but proceeded to go three-and-out after failing to convert on 3rd & 6. Wisconsin's front seven showed its resolve on the ensuing Buckeye drive, giving up three yards on first, second and third down before stuffing Carlos Hyde on 4th & 1. 

Wisconsin thus started their next drive at their own 39, but that field position was immediately squandered. Ohio State linebacker Curtis Grant sacked Stave on first down for a loss of nine. Then, the dam took on its biggest fissure in the game to that point. 

Bradley Roby reeled in Stave's only interception of the game, returning it to the Wisconsin 32. The Buckeyes rushed just four on the play, but Ohio State DE Adolphus Washington badly beat left tackle Tyler Marz to the outside. Washington hit Stave right as he threw, leading to a wobbly duck of a pass to an area of the field with nary a Badger to be found. In truth, you can't even fault Stave for this one; Washington is a great player, but you simply can't get beat like that, especially with the Buckeyes only bringing four. Easier said than done, of course.

Nonetheless, with an opportunity to hold the Buckeyes to just a field goal try, Wisconsin gave up a first down on 3rd & 8 at their own 15. This might not have mattered in the end, but being down two scores instead of three would have been a small victory there heading into the final quarter.

The UW defense had yet another chance to hold the Buckeyes, on third & goal from the one-yard line. Miller pulled the ball from Hyde, and with what appears to be LB Joe Schobert in his face, surgically darted a perfect low ball between Dezmen Southward and Darius Hillary, right into the hands of Philly Brown. 

From there, the game of catch-up took an extra order of magnitude of desperation. 

I don't remember what OSU was doing defensively (and don't have the game in my DVR), but the Badgers finally found some success on the ground, with Gordon and White picking up gains of eight, four, 10 and five on UW's ensuing drive. Following a holding penalty on Bradley Roby, White popped off a 17-yard score to give the Badgers life with 13:47 to go. The 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive was Wisconsin's best of the night. 

Miller started the next Buckeye drive with a 15-yard scamper, an "oh no" moment if there ever was one. The Buckeyes drove down to the Wisconsin 28, where they were met with a 3rd & 4. Backup nose tackle Warren Herring brought Miller down on the play, forcing a punt. As the announcer in Little Giants said: Mr. Momentum may be changing his address. 

The two squads then traded three-and-outs, leaving Gary Andersen's team just 4:38 to score 10 points. Stave completed a big 3rd & 9 pass to Abbrederis (who else) to keep the drive alive. Stave hit Abbrederis again for 23 and Alex Erickson for 11, but the drive fizzled out at the Buckeye 24. This time, placekicker Kyle French put a 42-yarder through the uprights to cut the lead to seven with 2:05 to go. 

Fortunately for Andersen, the Badgers had all three of their timeouts, and he used every single one of them. The Badgers forced a punt, and were left with 1:29 to go 90 yards. Given Abbrederis's big play ability, this wasn't an inconceivable outcome. However, the Buckeyes certainly knew this; as such, Stave would need to connect with his secondary targets if the Badgers were truly going to make the Ohio Stadium crowd sweat in the Columbus night.

After an incompletion on first down, a fumble on second, a completion for 13 yards on 3rd down, the Badgers were met with a 4th & 4 for the ballgame. Stave was not able to target Abbrederis on his first three attempts, and the fourth would be no different; OSU's Doran Grant broke up Stave's attempt to Jeff Duckworth, ending the comeback effort in four efficient downs. 

The Badgers fought hard, but the Buckeyes were simply too much at the skill positions for the leaky UW secondary to handle, and the Badgers ground game never really took off. For the first time all season, the UW offense was without a single 100+ yard rusher. 

If the Badgers are to have a shot at a fourth straight Big Ten title, they will need to win out and hope for two Buckeye conference losses. The way things are going, that seems unlikely; Saturday was likely the coronation of the Buckeyes upon the Leaders division throne. 

Miscellaneous Notes: 
  • Like Michigan, the Badgers' pass rush has been less than fearsome to date. Although Miller was able to avoid trouble a majority of the time, backup NT Warren Herring picked up two sacks on the day. 
  • Chris Borland, the James Laurinaitis of Badger linebackerdom, picked up a whopping 16 tackles in this one (10 solo), including half of a TFL. 
  • The Badgers have to be kicking themselves about OSU touchdown at the end of the first half. Keep them off the board there and perhaps the second half plays out another way. 
  • Kyle French's missed field goal from 32 yards out did nothing to assuage Badgers fans concerns about the placekicking. The miss seemed like a minor footnote of an event at the time, but given that the drive started with a 64-yard reception by Abbrederis (about 47 yards coming via YAC), French's miscue was an ominous moment for a Badger team that was simply looking to hang on as long as possible. 
  • I have to say it again: Jared Abbrederis is as impressive a receiver as any I've seen this season. 
  • From the Buckeye perspective: Miller's ability to move around and maintain velocity on his downfield throws is positively Vick-esque. Anyone who was calling for Kenny Guiton to get the start (I didn't pay enough attention to know if they exist, but, they probably did) feels pretty foolish right now. 
  • Miller's Badger counterpart squashed much of the doubters' sentiments after his performance Saturday night. The lone interception proved costly, but when you figure in the road environment and the absence of the usually robust running game, it's a wonder he only erred once. 
  • At 3-2 (1-1), the Badgers have a much needed bye week coming up before getting Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats at Camp Randall on Oct. 12. As important as Saturday night was for the Badgers, the next one will go a long way toward determining the tenor of the rest of the season for UW. I wouldn't have said this at the start of the season, but the upcoming three-game stretch against Northwestern, at Iowa and at Illinois will prove to be a legitimate challenge. I'm sitting here trying to think what would be an acceptable record there for the Badgers, but I'm not really sure anymore. Is Illinois really as good as they've looked against Cincinnati and Miami (OH)? I don't know, but the Illini's trip to Lincoln this week will do a little bit to answer that question. Many, many points will be scored, that much is certain. 
  • On the other hand, the Buckeyes travel to Evanston this coming Saturday, where College Gameday will be setting up shop. The Wildcats did not exactly impress in their last two victories against Western Michigan and Maine, but Fitzgerald's squad is likely OSU's biggest test until their trip to Ann Arbor, depending on how bullish you feel about Iowa, Illinois (where the Buckeyes play on the road this season) and Penn State, and how down you are vis-a-vis Michigan's recent struggles. Either way, this should be another good one and a major test for a surging Northwestern football program. 

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