A week ago, Ohio State’s match-up with Wisconsin was on track to be one of the most anticipated college football games of the year. But then Wisconsin fell on the road to Illinois, a 30.5-point underdog, last Saturday to knock them out of the Top 10 and rob this match-up of the hype that would have accompanied a game featuring two top-6 ranked teams.
Still, Wisconsin isn’t nearly as bad as they looked at times last week when they were giving up big plays on defense and making critical mistakes on offense. And the Badgers still figure to pose the biggest test Ohio State has seen to date on both sides of the ball, particularly up front in the trenches.
Two elite defenses will be on display as Wisconsin and Ohio State rank first and second in the entire country in total defense, and the game will feature serious individual star power with two Heisman Trophy candidates taking the field in Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.
Indeed, there is still plenty of intrigue left in a match-up that could wind up being the first of two meetings should both teams win out to reach the Big Ten Championship game.
Here is a look at the personnel the Buckeyes will need to contend with in order to stay undefeated and on track for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Wisconsin’s offense has long been predicated on pounding the football with talented running backs operating behind mammoth offensive lines, and 2019 is no different.
The aforementioned Taylor is the latest in a deep tradition of great running backs at Wisconsin, and he has made a strong claim to being the greatest back in school history.
Taylor burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2017, racking up 1,977 rushing yards, the most ever by a freshman running back in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) history.
He was even better as a sophomore last season, eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark and setting the FBS record for a sophomore at 2,194 yards. For his performance last season, Taylor won the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation’s best running back.
While Taylor will need to have a monster second-half of this season to reach the 2,000-yard mark again, his junior season has been anything but a disappointment. Taylor has rushed for 957 yards and 15 touchdowns — one shy of his career-best — through seven games and is again the front-runner to claim the Doak Walker Award when the regular season wraps up.
Taylor has also proven to be more than capable as a receiver, hauling in a team-leading four touchdown catches.
After missing senior guard Jason Erdmann last week in the loss to Illinois, Wisconsin appears to have their starting offensive line intact this week.
Erdmann is on track to return, joining fellow guard Josh Seltzner, center Tyler Biadasz, and tackles Cole Van Lanen and Logan Bruss to form one of the best units in the country.
Biadasz, a junior, leads the group, having started all 13 games last season en route to earning consensus first-team All-Big Ten honors. He is likely a first-round pick in the NFL Draft whenever he leaves Wisconsin, as is Van Lanen.
Fans could see as many as eight offensive linemen on the field at one time for Wisconsin should they choose to go to their “hippo” package in goal-line situations.
Nobody is going to mistake quarterback Jack Coan for an elite passing threat this season, but he has been effective, at least more so than what Wisconsin has featured at the position over the past several years.
Coan has thrown for 1,383 yards and nine touchdowns while tossing just two interceptions this season. However, he hasn’t been much of a factor against the best defense Wisconsin has faced this year, throwing for just 421 yards combined in their games against Michigan, Northwestern, and Michigan State.
In a game where Ohio State will do all they can to limit Taylor and the Wisconsin running game, Coan’s ability to make some plays down the field and not turn the ball over will be critical to their chances of leaving Columbus with a win.
Coan’s top target has been receiver Quintez Cephus, a 6-foot-1-inch junior. Cephus leads the team in both catches (24) and yards (353).
A.J. Taylor, who led the team last season in all receiving categories; and Danny Davis III, a Springfield, Ohio native, give Coan additional options in the passing game.
Of course, the tight end is heavily involved in any Wisconsin offense, and Jake Ferguson has been solid for the Badgers. His 20 catches are tied for second on the team, and he has also caught two touchdown passes. Last season, Ferguson totaled more than 450 yards receiving and found the end zone four times.
In the same way that the Badger program is rooted in its running game, so, too, is it rooted in a strong front seven on defense.
In his third season in Madison, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has the Wisconsin defense playing at an elite level, led by an outstanding group of linebackers that are relentless in their attack.
Leonhard’s scheme utilizes four linebackers, typically in a 3-4-4 alignment, which puts a lot of strain on their ability to play downhill and make plays near the line of scrimmage. So far, the unit has had no issues doing just that, allowing just over 58 rushing yards per game, which leads the nation, and piling up 27 sacks.
Senior inside linebacker Chris Orr has a team-high eight sacks already, which is good for second in the Big Ten behind Chase Young. Fellow inside backer Jack Sanborn has 3.5 sacks of his own this season and leads the team with 40 total tackles and 23 solo tackles.
Senior Zack Baun has played a lot of football for Wisconsin, starting all 13 games last year at outside linebacker for the Badgers. Baun brings both size and quickness when pressuring off the edge and has 6.5 sacks already to his credit this season.
Along with their ability to get to the quarterback, the Wisconsin linebacking unit has also shown a knack for forcing turnovers. Sanborn, Baun, and Noah Burks have each picked off a pass this season.
How Fields and the Ohio State offensive line identifies where and when pressure is coming will be crucial to their success Saturday.
Upfront, defensive ends Isaiahh Loudermilk, Garrett Rand, and Matt Henningsen, as well as nose tackle Bryson Williams, are solid if not spectacular. Henningsen has recorded two sacks on the season, and Loudermilk has added one.
As good as the Wisconsin defense has been in shutting down opposing rushing attacks, their pass defense has been equally as stingy, relenting an average of just 135 passing yards per game, also the best mark in the nation.
Cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams bring experience outside, each having made at least five starts prior to this season. Rachad Wildgoose will serve as the third corner and has an interception this season.
At the back-end of the secondary, Wisconsin plays three safeties in Reggie Pearson, Collin Wilder, and Eric Burrell, who leads the team with two interceptions this season.
Collin Larsh is in his first season handling the placekicking duties for Wisconsin and has been spotty thus far. He is 6-10 in his field goal attempts this season but just 2-6 in attempts from 30 yards or deeper. His miss from 37-yards out in the third quarter of last week’s loss at Illinois loomed large as the Badgers went on to lose by two points.
Senior Anthony Lotti has served as the Wisconsin punter for four seasons now and is averaging 40 yards per boot this season. He has a career-long of 63 yards.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.