During the majority of No. 9 Ohio State’s 31-20 win against Michigan on Saturday, the Buckeye offense could not find much success. Led by quarterback J.T. Barrett for nearly three quarters and quarterback Dwayne Haskins for the rest of the game following Barrett’s knee injury, the offense averaged 5.6 yards per play, Ohio State’s second-lowest average of the season behind only its 5.1 average in the 31-16 loss to Oklahoma.
On Barrett’s seven nonscoring drives, Ohio State managed minus-3 total yards and did not gain more than 9 yards on a single drive. It was not until Barrett exited the game due to a knee injury and Haskins replaced him that the offense took off with two touchdowns, one made field goal and one missed field goal, while also managing to avoid bringing out the punting unit.
The Buckeyes eventually survived the scare, coming back from a six-point third-quarter deficit to extend their win streak against Michigan to six games. But Ohio State could not have been in the situation to come back without its defense clamping down after a shaky first quarter.
For the second straight week, the Buckeyes might have to rely on their defense to propel them to victory, this time against No. 5 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship Saturday night.
“It’s championship season, so the preparation has to be a bit more crisp and everybody has to contribute a little more and it’s always great to play for a championship,” redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said following Saturday’s victory.
Michigan drove 77 yards down the field on 13 plays with ease on its second possession to score the game’s first touchdown. Following a 42-yard punt return by Donovan Peoples-Jones that set Michigan up at the Ohio State 6-yard line, the Wolverines scored another touchdown. But Michigan scored just once more for the remainder of the game. Ohio State had five sacks, three pass break-ups, an interception and a forced fumble.
Unlike the defense, many questions about Ohio State’s offense remain unanswered, specifically regarding which quarterback will start and, if Barrett is healthy, whether he can consistently capture Haskins’ second-half success.
In his press conference Monday, head coach Urban Meyer said that even though Barrett did not practice on Sunday, he is probable for Saturday’s game. After the game, Barrett emphatically said he would play against the Badgers. In order to win the first conference championship of his career, Barrett must play much better against Wisconsin than he did against the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes also will, once again, be facing one of the top defensive units in the nation.
Wisconsin’s opponents average just 80.5 rushing yards per game, 9.5 yards less than any other team allows per game. But the Badgers’ pass defense is not any less stingy. It allows just 156.4 passing yards per game, No. 2 in the nation behind just Michigan.
If Barrett has similar struggles, Ohio State would have to hope its defense, which gave up 14 quick points to Michigan, holds steady against a more potent Badger offense.
“They can do a lot of different things, but they’re definitely run-first,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said on a teleconference Monday afternoon. “When they do decide to pass, they have a quarterback who can do it all.”
Wisconsin has always had a run-first offense. This year is no different. The Badgers average 243.3 rushing yards per game, the 18th-most in the country, and 182.8 passing yards per contest, the 97th-most in the nation.
From Melvin Gordon to Montee Ball to Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, the Badgers have had no shortage of talented running backs come through the program. The latest, Jonathan Taylor, is just a freshman. But despite his youth, he has performed like a veteran. Taylor has 258 carries for 1,806 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first collegiate season. Even though his season is not complete, Taylor already ranks third in Division I history in rush yards as a freshman.
“He’s a strong, powerful runner and once he gets going, straight-line, he can definitely make a lot of guys miss,” Worley said. “He doesn’t run like a freshman. It’s going to be a task to get him on the ground.”
Ohio State will focus on stopping Taylor on early downs. Worley said the Buckeyes will try to force the Badgers into third-and-long situations, opportunities where Ohio State believes it has an advantage.
Though quarterback Alex Hornibrook does not pose a stark challenge, he will be more difficult to defend than Michigan quarterback John O’Korn, who constantly missed open receivers against the Buckeyes.
Wide receiver Quintez Cephus leads Wisconsin with 501 receiving yards, but tight end Troy Fumagalli leads with 38 catches. Ohio State has struggled to defend tight ends, especially in its 55-24 loss to Iowa. Even though Michigan tight end Sean McKeon had just two catches for six yards, he was open on multiple occasions.
The Badgers’ offense, at times, seems like a more talented version of Michigan’s. But to win the conference championship, the Buckeyes will have to hold Wisconsin to a similar production level they held Michigan.
“At this time of the year, you don’t want to just play teams that don’t submit a challenge against you,” Worley said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us as a team, as a defense. It’s going to be a battle inside and out.”
Ohio State can take some pressure off the inconsistent offense if its defense — which played just well enough to keep the team within striking distance against Michigan — prevents the Badgers from controlling the momentum and possession, slowing the game and putting the Buckeyes in an early deficit.