Championship Week is upon us as the No. 10 University of Wisconsin football team (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten) prepares to travel to Indianapolis to take on the No. 2 The Ohio State University Buckeyes (12-0, 9-0) in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The game is a rematch, as the Buckeyes defeated the Badgers 38–7 back in October.
For the Buckeyes, they have the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff at stake, as a decisive victory will likely keep them in the top spot ahead of LSU, who plays Georgia for the SEC title.
For the Badgers, they have a Rose Bowl appearance to play for, as the higher-ranked team between them and No. 12 Penn State will travel to Pasadena, California New Year’s Day.
A Big Ten Championship, though, playoff rankings and bowl assignments aside, is more than enough to play for in both teams’ case as the Buckeyes are playing for their third straight Big Ten title and fourth overall since the conference introduced a championship game back in 2011. Additionally, the Badgers are playing for their third Big Ten title after winning it in 2011 and 2012 but falling short in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Here are how the two teams match up and what the Badgers will need to do to come away with a victory.
Since the two teams met in October — a game in which the Buckeyes controlled the line of scrimmage and ran for 264 yards and three touchdowns — the Badgers have allowed under 100 yards in three of their four games, including holding Minnesota’s Rodney Smith to only 31 yards on 11 carries last weekend.
This improved defensive line performance will be key to a Badger upset on Saturday.
Buckeye running back J.K. Dobbins enters the weekend leading the nation in yards-per-carry and averages just over 138 yards-per-game on the ground. Those numbers come without Dobbins appearing in the fourth quarter in half of the Buckeyes’ games this year.
If Garrett Rand, Isaiahh Loudermilk and Keeanu Benton are able to build on their dominant performance against the Golden Gophers last weekend, they can give this defense a chance at keeping the Badgers in the game.
The second key to a Badger victory is to limit the Buckeyes’ big plays on offense.
OSU comes into the matchup with one of the most dynamic offenses in college football. Though it is a seemingly insurmountable task, if the Badgers can contain Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields over the top and keep Dobbins from breaking explosive runs, they have a chance to come away with a victory.
If the Buckeyes are able to hit on big plays against Jim Leonhard’s defense it will make for another long day for the Badgers. One encouraging note is that, besides the one 51-yard bomb to open the game, the Badgers had success in limiting the Gophers’ explosive passing attack last weekend.
The final two keys go hand-in-hand and will decide whether the Badgers find themselves with a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
The first is whether Wisconsin’s Head Coach Paul Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph continue to find success with their recent deception on offense.
As noted in my takeaway piece from Saturday’s victory in Minneapolis, Chryst’s offense started to churn only after the receiver motions, jet sweeps and wildcat looks were put into play.
Against the Buckeyes in October, one of the Badgers’ two explosive plays on offense came from a wildcat run, as Aron Cruickshank took a direct snap for a 27-yard gain late in the first quarter.
What this deception does, additionally, is open up the box for Jonathan Taylor to find space. If Chryst’s game plan can utilize Kendric Pryor’s 21 yards-per-carry, Danny Davis’ 14.3 yards-per-carry and create enough deception to free up space for Taylor in the backfield, this Badger offense can find success.
The final key to a Badger victory Saturday is winning the turnover battle.
It may seem like an obvious path to victory, but the Badgers’ turnover margin tells nearly the entire story of their impressive season. In the eight games the Badgers have won or tied the turnover battle, they are 8-0. In the four games they’ve lost the turnover battle, they sit at 2-2.
Turnovers will carry even more weight Saturday as, aside from going up against by far the most dynamic and talented team in the Big Ten, the Badgers have won the turnover battle only once in their last six games with the one being last weekend against Minnesota.
With Jeffrey Okudah and Chase Young carrying the Buckeye defense, taking care of the football will be a challenge for Jack Coan and the Badgers offense, but it will be necessary if they want a chance at a victory.
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Two final notes before Saturday’s game:
First, if Chryst doesn’t come up with a plan to stop Young, his team will have a long day. Young recorded four sacks and two forced fumbles during their meeting in October and was in the backfield on seemingly every play. Stopping the best player in college football will often be a key to success no matter what teams are on the field.
Second, Fields enters the game with a sprained MCL suffered against the Penn State Nittany Lions a few weeks ago. Against Michigan last weekend, he re-twisted his knee and had to miss a drive while quarterback Chris Chugunov took over under center. Quarterback depth is the Buckeyes’ only weakness entering Saturday so a Fields re-injury could be catastrophic for the Buckeyes.
The two teams will take the field and battle for the championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis at 7 p.m. Saturday night.