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Football: Clash of titan defenses battle for playoff lives in Big Ten championship game

Ohio State freshman running back J.K. Dobbins (2) runs the ball in the third quarter of the game against Michigan on Nov. 25 in Ann Arbor. Ohio State won 31-20. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

When No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) and No. 8 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) meet Saturday in the Big Ten championship game, two of the nation’s top defenses will do battle with College Football Playoff implications on the line. The Buckeyes are not guaranteed one of the four spots should they win in Indianapolis, but the Badgers’ current placement in the top four would seem to indicate a win cements their place.

Ohio State offense vs. Wisconsin defense

The Ohio State offense ranks as one of the best in the nation, averaging the fifth-most points per game (43.8) and fourth-most total yards per game (529.8). That offense will be facing off against one of the top defenses in the country, one that has allowed the second-fewest points per game (12) and the fewest yards per game (236.9).

The most intriguing matchup between the two teams will come on the ground. This goes on both sides. The Wisconsin running defense versus Ohio State’s rushing attack and vice versa. The Badgers have allowed the fewest rushing yards per game (80.5) and second-fewest per carry (2.65), while the Buckeyes have the 13th-most rushing yards per game (250.3) and eighth-most yards per carry (5.9) in the nation.

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s health will be a key factor in this game. The redshirt senior had to leave in the third quarter of the Buckeyes’ game against Michigan with a knee injury, and while he is expected to play, his knee could limit his mobility and potential to run the read-option. But the Buckeyes have a pair of explosive running backs in Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, who are both hitting their stride at this point in the season and should be able to shoulder the burden of the running game.

The Badgers’ defensive line is one of the best Ohio State will face this season. But the Buckeyes faced an even more talented defensive line in Michigan last week and their backfield duo combined for 158 yards on 27 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and scored two touchdowns. Weber and Dobbins have the ability to propel Ohio State’s offense, and they might be tasked to do so, for the Wisconsin passing defense has shut down opponents.

The Badgers have allowed just 156.4 passing yards per game (second-fewest in the nation) and 5.5 yards per attempt (lowest in the nation). Only four times this season have they allowed more than 200 passing yards in a game and they have allowed a passing touchdown in only five games.

The leaders for that defense have been a pair of first-team All-Big Ten defensive backs, cornerback Nick Nelson and safety D’Cota Dixon. Nelson is tied for second in the nation with 20 passes defended, while Dixon has three passes defended, an interception, a forced fumble, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Linebacker T.J. Edwards is another defense weapon for the Badgers. The first-team All-Big Ten linebacker leads the team with four interceptions and has returned one for a touchdown, while also defending six passes. Edwards also has been crucial in stopping plays behind the line, leading the team with 11 tackles for a loss and two sacks.

Just like last week when the Buckeyes faced off against one of the top-five defenses in the nation, much of this game comes down to the battle of a top offense versus a top defense. The Buckeyes have shown the potential to put up plenty of points against top defenses — Penn State and Michigan State both came into their games against the Buckeyes with impressive statistics defensively. They also have the potential to struggle like they did for most of their game against Michigan.

Ohio State defense vs. Wisconsin offense

This matchup comes down to really just one question: can the Buckeyes’ rushing defense stop Jonathan Taylor? Though Wisconsin’s offense has overall been solid, ranking 42nd in total offense and 26th in scoring, it has seen nearly all of its success come on the ground. More specifically, it has almost exclusively come from Taylor.

Taylor has racked up 1,806 rushing yards in his true freshman season, third-most among all running backs behind San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and Stanford’s Bryce Love. The only two freshmen who have rushed for more yards in a season are Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson in 2004 (1,925 yards) and Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne in 1996 (1,863 yards).

Taylor has been relied on heavily by the Badgers’ offense this season, and he has done everything asked of him. Taylor’s rushing yards account for 35 percent of Wisconsin’s total offense. He has just one game in which he has averaged fewer than five yards per carry and has scored in nine of his 12 games.

Part of the reason Taylor has had so much success has come down to the play of Wisconsin’s offensive line. The Badgers have only allowed 4.92 tackles for loss per game and just 1.42 sacks per game, both 26th-fewest in the nation.

That offensive line will be matched up against one of the best defensive lines in the nation in Ohio State. Led by a pair of first-team All-Big Ten defensive ends in Tyquan Lewis and Nick Bosa, Ohio State has held opponents down to just 3.13 rushing yards per carry, the ninth-lowest in the nation. It also has averaged 7.92 tackles for loss per game, 10th-most in the country.

Part of why Taylor has been relied up on so heavily is because of the mediocrity of Wisconsin’s passing attack. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been serviceable for the Badgers, but he has not been great. He has 21 touchdown passes, but 13 interceptions and just three games without throwing a pick. His accuracy is generally inconsistent, considering he has had five weeks with a completion percentage under 60 percent and three weeks with it higher than 70 percent.

Hornibrook is not the weapon in the passing game Ohio State should fear. That would be tight end Troy Fumagalli.

The Buckeyes have been torched week in and week out by opposing tight ends, and Fumagalli is one of the best they will face all season. He is second on the team with 471 receiving yards and leads the team with 38 receptions. He has brought down four touchdown passes. The 6-foot-6, 248-pound senior could be a major challenge for the Buckeyes to bring down, and should be expected to continue as Hornibrook’s favorite target.

Ohio State’s defense has been effective at times, but the kryptonite of the team at others. It is often victimized in the passing game, but it is generally consistent against rushing offenses. Wisconsin would appear to play well into the hands of the Ohio State defense, but it’s tough to tell how the Buckeyes will hold up against even a mediocre passing offense, when it was picked apart by Iowa quarterback Nathan Stanley and allowed Michigan quarterback John O’Korn to pass for 195 yards.

Predictions:

Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 24-20

Colin Hass-Hill: Wisconsin wins 31-30

James King: Ohio State wins 48-20

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