Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bye Week Breaking Points: Badgers and Buckeyes

With Michigan taking a much needed week off, this is a great week to focus on a big time Leaders division matchup at the Horseshoe between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers. Ohio State, of course, has national title aspirations, while the Badgers are looking to win their fourth Big Ten championship in a row, including their third straight Big Ten championship game victory. Unfortunately for the Badgers, a loss this Saturday will probably prevent them from having the opportunity to play for it.

Were it not for a truly bizarre ending in Tempe (yes, Wisconsin handled it poorly, but there is simply no excuse for the lack of any sort of action by the referees), this would be a meeting of undefeated squads. Alas, that is not the case, but the Badgers are fresh off of a cathartic thumping of Purdue and the Buckeyes had themselves a little tune-up game against FAMU last week to go 4-0.

I've mentioned this here before, but, records aside (i.e. Michigan and Northwestern), I think these are the two best teams in the Big Ten right now. Regardless, this should be a fun game to watch, as this has become an increasingly exciting series the last few years.

A few points bouncing around in my head about this matchup is we get closer to Saturday night:

Braxton Miller rustiness vs. Dave Aranda. With Miller likely to start (despite being listed as a co-starter with Kenny Guiton), rustiness could be an issue for Miller early on. Miller played the opener against Buffalo and just a bit of the first quarter against San Diego State. Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda might look to capitalize early on by trying to confuse Miller with various looks out of the 3-4; B5Q has a nice post on that very thing, highlighting what Aranda did against Purdue last week. The Buckeyes cannot afford to let any Badgers defenders through for clean hits against Miller (as we saw in last year's Michigan game).

UW's three-headed rushing attack vs. OSU rush defense. It's generally fruitless to cite most forms of statistics at this point in the season, but, FWIW, OSU is 9th in rushing defense, allowing just 2.61 yards per carry. Naturally, the Badgers are third in rushing offense, spearheaded by senior James White--who has seemingly been here for (12) years like LL Cool J--and Melvin Gordon*, with freshman 4-star Corey Clement picking up some serious production in Wisconsin's three blowout wins. The Badgers have accomplished this with an offensive line that is good but by no means one of their better lines in recent memory. Gary Andersen's squad had a tough time running up the middle against Arizona State, but found great success on Gordon fly sweeps:

Can they do the same thing against an Ohio State front seven that, before the season, was talented but inexperienced (and now has four games under its belt)? Maybe. Either way, this will be a huge test for Ohio State's linebackers, especially strong side linebacker Joshua Perry and middle linebackers Curtis Grant.

In any case, the Buckeyes haven't exactly faced stiff competition:
What the Badgers bring is a powerful offense than can break a defense’s spirit. Ohio State’s young defensive front has not faced an offense capable of running the football. Buffalo (112), San Diego State (113), California (97) and Florida A&M (107 in FCS) think of the run as an afterthought.
If I had to take a guess, the Badgers will likely have some success early on the Buckeyes defense gets used to the uptick in run game quality. How the Buckeyes responds after that will be the most important facet of this game.

I really liked this boxing-themed lede regarding Ohio State's defense against Wisconsin's rushing attack.

*Gordon's production alone is exceeds that that of 45 FBS teams.

Devin Smith/Philly Brown vs. UW secondary. The secondary was a major concern for the Badgers coming into the season, and in their lone game against decent competition, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly threw for 352 yards (albeit on 51 attempts). Meanwhile, Smith and Brown have to date combined for 32 receptions (16 apiece exactly), 450 yards and seven touchdowns. Smith's 90-yard touchdown reception against Cal was the longest scoring play in Ohio State history. The Badgers have a solid run defense, but can be had over the top. Look for Miller/Guiton to go over the top to take advantage of this weakness.

Joel Stave vs. accuracy. During the offseason, my opinion of the Wisconsin quarterback race, as an outsider, was that Stave was clearly the guy with the most upside and probably the best quarterback on the roster, period. I still think that is true, but after attending last week's game at Camp Randall, I'm starting to understand some of the gripes Badgers fans have re: his accuracy. Stave does well on the short stuff and has a decent arm (as far as I can tell, certainly better than Curt Phillips's arm) but continues to flat out miss open receivers. This was most glaring late in the third quarter, when Stave vastly underthrew Jared Abbrederis downfield. Has Stave thrown it anywhere near Abbrederis's catching radius, the senior receiver likely could have walked to the end zone untouched.

Simply put, if Stave can't stretch the Ohio State defense with his arm, the Badgers are not going to have two 100+ yards rushers, let alone three. I think Stave is a solid quarterback, but if he can't connect deep with Abbrederis--who should be able to get open, even while matched up against Bradley Roby--then the Badgers are doomed to running into stacked fronts with only moderate success at best.

The return of Carlos Hyde vs. Jordan Hall. Although the spotlight has been on Guiton for his performance in Miller's absence, tailback Jordan Hall has quietly put together a stellar stat line while Hyde served out a suspension. Hall has racked up 422 yards and eight touchdowns at 6.2 yards per carry. With that said, Hyde is the more talented player, and it will be interesting to see how he is deployed on Saturday.

With Miller returning from injury, you'd think that Urban Meyer would like to avoid running Miller too much until it's absolutely necessary.

UW nose tackle Beau Allen vs. Ohio State interior offensive line. The enormous Allen (6'3'' 325 pounds) has had to adjust to being the man in the middle in the base 3-4 defense, but it seems he's done an excellent job thus far, especially against Arizona State. The Sun Devils' interior OL couldn't hold off Allen; as a result, they ran for just 2.8 YPC.

The Buckeyes have the pure speed and athleticism to attack the edges, but if the Buckeyes want to have success up the middle, Buckeyes center Corey Linsley and guards Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall will need to eat their Wheaties. If anything, the Buckeyes might want to loosen up the defense with the pass first.

Wisconsin vs. injuries. I didn't quite realize this until reading this B5Q post, but the Badgers are pretty banged up, to the point that center Dallas Lewallen, tight end Jacob Pedersen and corner Peniel Jean might not even play this week; losing Jean puts some serious pressure on young corner Sojourn Shelton. A freshman Shelton checking either Smith or Brown is not exactly a winning proposition for the Badgers.

Really, this is a pretty simple game. Wisconsin will try to run the ball; Ohio State will try to force Stave to beat them. The Buckeyes will look to strike deep against a vulnerable Badgers secondary, while the Badgers will look to make Miller uncomfortable with a wide variety of presnap shifting and blitzes coming from unexpected places. Each team has vulnerable spots on defense (Wisconsin's secondary, possibly OSU's front seven against decent competition), and quarterback play, as it always is, will be crucial, but for different premises. Can Stave make plays downfield when Abbrederis manages to get open? What will Braxton Miller look like after not playing the last nine quarters of OSU football?

Making score predictions is a lot like playing darts with one eye covered; but, we do them anyway, because we like to put a nice little bow of closure atop the things we've written.

Although I've developed a bit of an affinity for Madison, I'm not sure that the Badgers leave Ohio Stadium with a win. Gordon and White should have decent evenings, but I'm not sure I trust Stave to connect on big plays when they're there to be made. I also foresee a big play or two through the air to Smith/Brown for the Buckeyes. Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 20. 

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