En route to a 5-1 start this season, the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers have faced a number of talented quarterbacks.
Against Arizona State, Wisconsin was reacquainted with former Michigan nemesis Steven Threet. In the Big Ten opener at Michigan State, UW encountered Kirk Cousins. Last weekend in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Badgers squared off against Minnesota’s Adam Weber.
As good as those signal callers may be, however, one thing Wisconsin hasn’t seen in 2010 is a player with the pure talent of Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
“If you get out of your pass rush lane, he’s going to beat you real quick because he’s fast, he’s quick and he sees his holes,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “So, we need to learn how to pressure the quarterback, and that’s what we’ve been working on all week – without getting out of our lanes.”
Saturday night, Camp Randall Stadium will get to test its lights out in the first – and only – night game of the season. Increasing the magnitude of the showdown will be the presence of ESPN and its famous College GameDay pregame show. Yet, the task remains simple for Wisconsin – shut down Terrelle Pryor.
“Oh my gosh, I got jacked up immediately,” safety Aaron Henry said of hearing the OSU game would be played at night. “People started calling me, making sure they had tickets and everything, man. …Any time there’s a night game here, man, people love Madison. It’s going to be a crazy atmosphere. But it’s an extra incentive; the number one team in the country is coming here. It’s going to be big for both parties man, it’s going to be big for both parties.”
Indeed, the Buckeyes took over the No. 1 ranking after Alabama fell to South Carolina last Saturday. As has been the case for most of his two-plus years in Columbus, Pryor has been Ohio State’s biggest weapon. Standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing 233 pounds, Pryor also has the speed and mobility of a running back, epitomizing the menace of a dual-threat quarterback.
Thus far in 2010, Pryor has lived up to every bit of the hype, throwing for 1,349 yards, 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions, good for a 170.47 quarterback rating. On the ground, the Pennsylvania native has gained 354 yards on 57 carries (6.2 yards per) and has rushed for 3 touchdowns. Impressively, Pryor has zero fumbles this season, a testament to improving on his turnover-ridden 2009 campaign.
“This year, I would say he’s a whole lot smarter than he was last year,” Henry said. “He isn’t making lazy throws like he was last year, but it’s still a whole bunch of opportunities there. A lot of announcers have announced him as one of those guys to go out there and make plays. He’s become a better passer, and I think he’s become a better passer because the wide receivers, they put him in good situations.”
After seeing Pryor throw 11 interceptions last season, seeing his decision-making improve only magnifies the natural intimidation he provokes. So, then, how can Wisconsin expect to stop him?
“We just need to get pressure on him and kind of get him rattled, and hopefully he’ll make some mental mistakes,” Watt said. “There’s not much difference between quarterback to quarterback; if you get pressure on them, they’re gonna get a little bit rattled, so that’s what we need to do.”
Against an Ohio State offensive line that has allowed 13 sacks this season – tied for second-worst in the Big Ten – the Wisconsin pass rush will have to significantly augment its pressure. The Badgers have sacked the quarterback 12 times this season – tied for second-best in the Big Ten – and will look to do the same against Pryor.
However, Wisconsin’s defense has been prone to giving up big plays, something that Pryor surely will aim to exploit.
“We’ve got to play within ourselves,” defensive coordinator Dave Doeren said. “We’ve got to be gap-sound, we’ve got to be smart in coverage and we’ve got to have that quarterback pinned in.”
Outside of Pryor, the Buckeyes’ running game has not produced much this season. OSU’s leading rusher, Dan Herron, has ran for 355 yards – only one more than Pryor. Consequently, the Badgers may be able to devote their defensive line – particularly ends Watt and Louis Nzegwu – even more to contain on Pryor.
“We really focus on contain,” middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean said. “That’s one of the big things. Just keeping him contained and allowing him to stay in the pocket and hopefully we get pressure and allow our d-line to get sacks.”
While Wisconsin hasn’t faced anything close to the dual-threat that Pryor presents, the Badgers did receive a taste in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl. Against the favored Miami Hurricanes, Wisconsin held quarterback Jacory Harris to 188 yards on 16 for 29 passing. Most importantly, though, were Harris’ rushing stats: Nine carries for negative-one yards.
“Nothing against Jacory Harris, but Jacory Harris is one of those guys who likes to sit in the pocket and just throw the ball,” Henry said. “Jacory Harris, there wasn’t a time in that game where he threatened to run. I think with Terrelle Pryor, you have a running back, but you also have a quarterback that can play running back. This guy gets outside the pocket, and he can be dangerous.”
At Ohio State last year, Wisconsin found itself in a defensive struggle for most of the game – but still lost 31-13. Pryor finished with 35 rushing yards – despite a gross yardage of 59 – on 10 carries, but was only five for 13 with 87 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception. This season, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel and his staff have opened up the playbook more for Pryor, putting him on pace to pass the ball 306 times, which would be a career-high.
“They’re getting closer to 50-50, that’s for sure,” Watt said of OSU’s run-pass breakdown. “You can see it this year. They’re giving No. 2 a little bit more freedom. If they want to go pass first, that’s fine because that opens up more opportunities for pressures and sacks.”
Along with preventing big plays, getting those pressures and sacks will be the principal focus for Wisconsin as it aims to slow down Pryor. Stopping him altogether may prove to be near impossible, especially with the season he has been putting together, but the Badgers plan to use every opportunity to force Pryor into making mistakes.
“My coach was talking today, he was like, ‘A lot of times, teams who come in with a big name, other teams allow the logo on their helmet to beat them.’ Just because they’re Ohio State, a lot of teams will be afraid or scared because they have Terrelle Pryor and they have a big ‘O’ on their helmet,” Henry said.
“But this is Big Ten football, man. We live for moments like this. So, I’m just looking forward to it and I’m going to try to embrace the situation and take advantage of every opportunity that’s presented my way.”