Wisconsin running back Montee Ball tied the all-time NCAA record for total touchdowns last season when he scored a seven-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Ohio State.
Tying the record was just part of a 191-yard rushing performance on 39 carries against the Buckeyes when the two teams met at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis., last year. Ball has since moved on to the NFL’s Denver Broncos, but the Wisconsin rushing attack has the potential to give the Buckeyes trouble once again when the two teams meet Saturday at 8 p.m. in Columbus.
“I can’t imagine two better backs on the same team,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday about Wisconsin’s top two running backs, redshirt-sophomore Melvin Gordon and senior James White.
Through their first four games of the season, Wisconsin leads the nation with 1,399 rushing yards.
Meyer specifically described Gordon, who is the Football Bowl Subdivision’s leading rusher with 624 rushing yards, as a “tremendous player.”
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen, who is in his first year with the Badgers after previously coaching at Utah State, said Gordon is one of the best running backs he has ever coached or been around.
“(Gordon) developed some patience within the tackles. He has tremendous speed and his God-given ability is unbelievable,” Andersen said. “He’s turned into a speed back and a power back and he’s a patient back, which is a vicious combination.”
The majority of Wisconsin’s offensive production so far this season has come from their ground game. In addition to Gordon leading the nation, White ranks 10th nationally with 442 rushing yards. The Badgers have run the ball 175 times and have scored 15 rushing touchdowns, while they have completed 62 of 99 passing attempts for 792 yards and six touchdowns.
Nonetheless, OSU redshirt-junior cornerback Bradley Roby said Wednesday the Buckeyes defense could be victimized for big plays if they do not take the Badgers passing offense seriously.
“They’ll lull you to sleep with the run,” Roby said.
With exactly eight yards per passing attempt and 7.99 yards per rushing play, Wisconsin’s average yards per play has been nearly identical between its passing and rushing offenses.
The team’s early lean toward running the football has been, at least in part, in the interest of managing the clock in Wisconsin’s three wins. The Badgers won each of those games by at least 31 points, and ran the ball at least 20 more times than they passed the ball. When the Badgers lost to Arizona State, 32-30, on Sept. 14, the team had 31 passing attempts and 32 rushing attempts.
Wisconsin’s leading receiver, redshirt-senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, said Tuesday he expects the offense to be more evenly balanced against OSU.
“Going into every game, you expect to throw the ball,” Abbrederis said. “When we throw it, we have to come down with it and make some plays.”
The Buckeyes have a potent rushing offense of their own. While Wisconsin has the FBS’ leading rushing offense, OSU ranks second with 1,244 rushing yards.
The leader of that effort thus far this season has been redshirt-senior running back Jordan Hall, who has 422 rushing yards, good for 13th in the nation, through the first four games.
Senior running back Carlos Hyde, who ran five times for 41 yards and also caught a one-yard touchdown pass in his season debut last Saturday against Florida A&M, is also expected to figure prominently in the Buckeyes’ offense versus Wisconsin. Hyde ran for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns as OSU’s starting running back last season, but was suspended for the first three games of this season for his involvement in an incident at a Columbus bar in July.
Practicing against such high-caliber backs like Gordon and White is helping to prepare the Badgers defense to go up against the Buckeyes’ backfield, according to Wisconsin redshirt-senior defensive end Pat Muldoon.
“It’s great going against those guys (Gordon and White) … and our third running back, (freshman Corey Clement). They all challenge us every day (in practice),” Muldoon said. “When we do live tackling, it always makes you better as a defense when you have to try to tackle really good running backs, so it’ll help us with the good runners Ohio State has.”
Those runners, Muldoon said, also include the Buckeyes’ two quarterbacks, junior Braxton Miller and redshirt-senior Kenny Guiton.
Miller ranked third among all FBS quarterbacks with 1,271 rushing yards last season, but he has not played since suffering an MCL sprain in his left knee versus San Diego State Sept. 7.
Guiton, who won back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards starting in Miller’s place, is also a capable runner, gaining 186 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown, on 25 rushing attempts this season.
Although he said Wednesday Miller will “probably start” Saturday, Meyer has not officially named a starting quarterback for the game, instead listing the two quarterbacks as co-starters on this week’s depth chart.
The possibility of going up against either quarterback hasn’t affected Wisconsin’s preparation “at all,” Andersen said.
“They’re both great quarterbacks,” Andersen said of Miller and Guiton. “The scheme doesn’t change drastically. Sometimes when you prepare for two quarterbacks, there’s a drastic change or even just a little change in the scheme. I don’t see a drastic change in scheme with both of these quarterbacks.”
Muldoon said the OSU offense is “similar” regardless of which quarterback plays.
“They can both make plays with their feet, they can both make plays with their arm, so the offense doesn’t change much,” Muldoon said. “We’re preparing for a really athletic, good quarterback back there either way.”
Regardless of whether one or both of OSU’s quarterbacks play, each team’s ability to run the ball against the opposing defense is expected to play a key role in Saturday’s outcome.
“It’s obviously one of those classic smash-mouth games,” redshirt-senior offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said Wednesday. “Who wins the rushing game (will be key); that’s usually what it is in football.”
The Buckeyes will be looking to extend their winning streak against Wisconsin to three games, and their overall winning streak to 17 games, Saturday.
The Badgers, on the other hand, will be looking for redemption after two close losses in the team’s past two matchups. Wisconsin lost in overtime to OSU in Madison last season, and lost 33-29 two years ago in Columbus.
Wisconsin is the three-time defending Big Ten conference champion, but with one loss already on their record, the No. 23-ranked Badgers are considered underdogs against the undefeated, No. 4-ranked Buckeyes.
Abbrederis said he is not paying attention to OSU’s ranking or winning streak.
“We’ve kind of been the underdogs for the past three years, so it’s kind of familiar territory,” Abbrederis said. “We’re just going to go out there and just do our best. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to reach our goal. It’s not about stopping somebody’s streak or whatever … it’s about getting where we want to be.”