Ohio State’s emphatic beatdown of the Toledo Rockets wrapped up a smooth non-conference slate for the nation’s third-ranked team, but the stakes are about to be raised when Wisconsin visits Columbus this weekend to open Big Ten play.
On Tuesday, head coach Ryan Day met with the media for his weekly press conference to preview the looming matchup with the Badgers (2-1) in what figures to be Ohio State’s most physical test to date in the early season.
“Any time you’re in conference play, it ramps up a little bit, everything means a little bit more,” Day said. “Wisconsin’s a very good team that epitomizes everything that Big Ten football is all about … They’re always good, they’re always well-coached, they’re always sound, and they have very good talent. This is going to be a big challenge.”
Led by star running back Braelon Allen and a quality offensive line, Wisconsin doesn’t figure to stray too far away from the same blueprint it’s used offensively for decades, meaning the revamped Ohio State run defense will be tested often.
“They have an identity for sure, which is important for a program,” Day said of Wisconsin’s typically run-heavy style. “They’re very well-coached, but they’re not easy to scout. They do a lot of different things and they’re good at them. I think one thing you know about them is they’re not going to deviate from their plan. But they’re very good at it, and it’s been very successful, so why would they?”
However, Day added it would be unwise to view this particular edition of Wisconsin football as simply a carbon copy of the ground-and-pound teams for which the program is known. Junior quarterback Graham Mertz is in his third season at the helm of the Wisconsin offense, and while he surely won’t be asked to throw the Badgers to victory on Saturday, Day believes he’s capable of making plays as “the best quarterback we’ve faced.”
“They’re a lot more multiple than you think,” Day said. “When you look at what they’re doing on offense, they’re throwing the ball a lot more than they ever have, at least in recent years. They’re really good at that. They’re multiple up front in terms of the different fronts that we’re seeing. We have to be prepared because they’re very intelligent and can handle high levels of information.”
Defensively, Wisconsin is expected to challenge the line of scrimmage early and often on Saturday under the direction of sixth-year defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Day talked on Tuesday about the respect he has for Leonhard but went on to say Saturday’s game can’t be about trying to outsmart a bright mind such as Leonhard.
“His defenses are always some of the best in the country,” Day said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t have anything to do with the coaches. It’s about the players. What do the players know? What can the players do?
“As much as it seems like matching whits between coordinators, and sure, that comes into play, at the end of the day it’s about what your players know and what they can execute on the field.”
Day figures to go into the game with a full complement of weapons on offense despite some recent injuries hampering the unit. Jaxon Smith-Njigba returned from a hamstring injury last week and was able to get back into the flow of the game in limited action, as did Julian Fleming, who caught a pair of touchdown passes on Saturday.
Their full returns this weekend will give Heisman hopeful quarterback C.J. Stroud his first opportunity to throw to a full cast of what is, arguably, the most vaunted receiving group in the country. Day also said on Tuesday that running back TreVeyon Henderson, who exited the game early in the win over Toledo, is expected to be available on Saturday.
Aside from the matchups and personnel of both teams, one potential intangible in Ohio State’s favor on Saturday should be a charged-up, raucous environment inside Ohio Stadium. The game represents the third home night game of the season already for Ohio State, and if the previous two atmospheres are any indication, the Buckeyes should receive a nice lift from the home crowd.
“The electricity of a night game in The Horseshoe, there’s nothing like it … I’m excited we have a night game,” Day said when asked about the string of night games. “I’m excited to see Buckeye Nation come out again and support our guys. We’d really like them to be loud in this one. Buckeye Nation has all day to get excited and fired up, so let’s go make this the loudest it’s ever been.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.