As the No. 16-ranked Badgers head into Columbus this weekend to face the No. 15 Ohio State Buckeyes, some may feel that the matchup has lost some of its luster. After all, the Buckeyes are coming off a shocking 33-27 overtime loss on the road to the usually hapless Northwestern Wildcats.
In the loss, not only was the Buckeyes’ ground game limited to a paltry 97 yards, but also All-American kicker Mike Nugent missed a field goal in overtime. The miss was just the eighth field goal Nugent has missed in three years.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, however, is not placing the blame on anyone but himself.
“I’m not sure I got across how difficult it is to go on the road and play a good team in the Big Ten and do the things that you need to do (to win),” Tressel said.
A lack of preparation may not be the only thing holding back the Buckeyes this year, though. Many see this team as a shell of the one that defeated the Miami Hurricanes two years ago to win the National Championship or even the one that defeated the Kansas State Wildcats in the Fiesta Bowl last year.
The once-vaunted running game, which included such standouts as Maurice Clarett, has been grounded so far this season. Through four games, the Buckeyes have managed just 465 yards on the ground. The squad’s leading rusher, senior Lydell Ross, has rushed for 313 yards, but 68 of those came on one carry.
The passing game, while never one of the team’s strong characteristics under Tressel, has also been suspect so far this year. First-year starter Justin Zwick has demonstrated all of the problems of a rookie quarterback over the course of the Buckeyes’ first four games. He had his best game against Marshall, where he threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-21 victory.
However, the sophomore regressed greatly in his next game against North Carolina State, completing only 47 percent of passes for 73 yards and no touchdowns. In the Buckeyes’ loss to Northwestern, Zwick righted the ship with 211 yards through the air, 90 of which came in the fourth quarter. However, he was unable to lead his team to victory against a Northwestern squad that holds a lackluster 2-3 record this year.
As a result, many in the Buckeye state are concerned. Tressel, however, shows no concern in regards to his young quarterback.
“The one thing you always knew about Justin (Zwick) is he cognitively knew what’s going on; he’s smart,” Tressel said. “He’s got an excellent ability to know what’s happening out there and know what needs to be done next.”
Despite his inconsistent start, the UW secondary respects Zwick’s arm and playmaking ability. The top-ranked passing defense in the conference (126.6 yards per game) will not take this matchup lightly.
“He’s solid, he’s a good quarterback,” UW cornerback Scott Starks said. “He puts the ball on the money and makes good decisions.”
Though his offense has been sub-par early in the 2004 campaign, Tressel’s defense has been superb, carrying the Buckeye’s to a 3-1 record.
Led by Ohio natives A. J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, both junior linebackers, the Buckeye ‘D’ has given the offense every opportunity to win games this season. Hawk has anchored the defense and leads the team with 44 tackles, while Carpenter is second on the squad with 35.
In the secondary, the Buckeyes feature junior safety Nate Salley, who will look to shut down a struggling UW receiving corps. Four games in, the Badgers’ passing attack ranks last in the Big Ten, averaging just 133.2 yards per game through the air.
Anchoring the Buckeyes’ defensive line is 6-foot-3, 290-pound tackle Marcus Green. The junior from Louisville leads the team with two sacks and is second on the team with three tackles-for-losses.
Green and the Ohio State defensive line will face a daunting challenge in the UW running game, which features a healthy Anthony Davis and an experienced offensive line. In his first game back after missing three games with an eye injury, Davis ran for 213 yards and three touchdowns against Illinois, as the Badgers out-rushed the Illini by 216 yards.
“Anthony (Davis) got stronger as the game went on and I think had a better feel as the game went on,” head coach Barry Alvarez said at his weekly press conference. “And, you know, he’s going to have to be at his best this week.”
Some may feel that the Buckeyes’ loss to Northwestern coupled with Ohio State’s uninspiring offensive performances will make this year’s trip to the Horseshoe easier than those in years past. However, Alvarez has prepared his team for a battle this Saturday in Columbus, recognizing that his squad will face a motivated Buckeye team that wants to prove that the loss to Northwestern was a fluke.
“There’s going to be enough incentive in this game that I’m sure they’ll be ready and hopefully our players will be ready,” Alvarez said.