The last time the Wisconsin Badgers stepped onto the playing field known as “The Horseshoe” in Columbus, Ohio, in 1999, their hopes of a successful season were in jeopardy after dropping consecutive games to Cincinnati and Michigan.
The 21-16 Michigan loss the previous week was a heartbreaker, with untested freshman Brooks Bollinger being inserted in the second half and providing a spark that almost led the Badgers back to victory. Only a failed onside kick in the waning moments of the game kept UW from having a shot at the Wolverines.
The Cincinnati loss was a stunner, as the Badgers lost 17-12 to a lowly Bearcat squad due to a rare late-game Ron Dayne fumble and a false-start penalty that nullified a Lee Evans touchdown catch with 12 seconds left in the game.
Things looked grim once again for the Badgers the following week in Columbus as Ohio State scored 17 straight points in the first half. But the UW offense, led by Bollinger, who was making his first collegiate start, scored 42 unanswered points and Wisconsin’s season was saved. The Badgers proceeded to win the rest of their games to finish 10-2 and first in the Big Ten, heading to their second straight Rose Bowl.
The Badgers travel to Ohio Stadium this weekend in a situation similar to the one they faced in 1999. Last week’s 63-32 loss to Indiana at Camp Randall came as nothing less than a shock, and the Badgers are hoping to do whatever they can to remove the bad taste left in their mouths by the surprising Hoosiers. At 3-3, the Badgers are almost forced to beat a formidable OSU team in order to maintain their goal of a successful season.
Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez expressed his team’s desire to put the Indiana game behind them and focus on the Badgers’ upcoming challenge.
“This isn’t the first time I lost, and it won’t be the last,” Alvarez said. “All I know is we’ve got to get focused on Ohio State and prepare for them as fast as we can, and no more than that. You don’t have to go a step farther than that. We always use the slogan ‘what’s important now.'”
What’s important now for the Badgers, 3-3 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten, is to avoid falling below .500, both overall and in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes, who come into this game with their record standing at 3-1 and 2-0 in the Big Ten, won’t make it easy.
With their lone loss coming in a close game to a very strong, seventh-ranked UCLA team, Ohio State, led by first-year coach Jim Tressel, is a formidable contender for the Big Ten championship. The loss dropped the Buckeyes out of the national rankings after they sat at Nos. 21 and 22 the first five weeks of the season. Last week’s 38-20 victory over Northwestern, who at the time was ranked No. 16, moved them back into the rankings at No. 25.
The Buckeyes, long associated with offense and explosive wideouts, are winning games with power running and defense this year. Buckeye QB Steve Bellisari, seen two years ago as a talented youngster with tremendous upside, has been highly inconsistent, completing only 39 of 78 passes for 594 yards and two touchdowns.
The workhorse of the OSU offense has been Jonathan Wells, who has rushed for 414 yards and six touchdowns. Lydell Ross and Sammy Maldonado have spelled Wells throughout the season and provided the Buckeyes with a potent backfield rotation.
“They have three strong running backs, all with good size and speed that they’ll rotate with a big offensive line,” Alvarez said. “They’re going more to the running game and not letting everything ride on the quarterback.”
The running game is powered by a tremendous offensive line that will make Saturday a long day for Wendell Bryant and the rest of the Badger defensive line. Every one of OSU’s offensive line starters weighs more than 300 pounds, with the group being led by center LeCharles Bentley.
“LeCharles did a tremendous job [against Northwestern] of not just blocking people, but also getting everybody on the right page,” Tressel said. “LeCharles has done a great job up front, and if there’s a better center anywhere, I am not sure where that is.”
On the other side of the ball, Bollinger and the Wisconsin offense will have considerable difficulty repeating 1999’s performance of 42 unanswered points against this year’s OSU defense.
“They started out the season very strong on defense, and they continue to get better,” Alvarez said. “Their defensive front is very physical; they’re fast, they don’t stay blocked. Their secondary and defensive backs will challenge you, they’re very physical.”
The OSU defense has indeed been impressive this year, allowing an average of only 161 yards per game, 10th in the nation. The Buckeyes have also limited opponents to 17 points per game, stellar when compared with the 29.3 points per game the Badger defense has allowed. The standout player on the unit is strong safety Mike Doss, a candidate for the Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive back. Doss proved just how much havoc he can wreak from the defensive backfield against Northwestern, recording 13 tackles, a sack, and a 30-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. On the season, Doss has five tackles for a loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries, and is tied for the team lead in tackles with 23.
One area where the Buckeyes seem particularly inconsistent is the placekicking game. Mike Nugent and Josh Huston are a combined 3-8 on field goal attempts. Nugent, who is 2-5, has yet to make a field goal beyond 20 yards. Punter Andy Groom, on the other hand, is averaging 46.2 yards per punt this season, along with six punts placed inside the 20.
Even with his highly talented team coming off a big win and the Badgers still reeling from the unexpected loss to Indiana, Tressel is not taking the Badgers lightly.
“They have some very skilled players on offense and are a very physical football team,” Tressel said. “Defensively, up until last week, they had been playing well. I think Wisconsin did not play as well as they could have [against Indiana], and I know they are going to play as well as they can Saturday, so we better do the same.”