- Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is expected to play after suffering a knee injury last weekend, but the Buckeyes won't fall off much if Dwayne Haskins has to play. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook, meanwhile, needs to cut back his turnovers.
On his weekly radio show Thursday, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer confirmed that his quarterback, J.T. Barrett, would be available for Saturday’s Big Ten title game. Barrett, a senior who passed for 2,717 yards while completing 66.1% of his throws, aggravated a knee injury last week against Michigan and underwent arthroscopic surgery on Sunday.
Meyer didn’t specify if Barrett would start, although that seems likely after he’s put up the best season of his career while dealing with the same lingering meniscus issue. His availability and the emergence of backup Dwayne Haskins—who impressed in his more than a quarter of play Saturday, completing six of seven passes for 94 yards as the Buckeyes pulled away—gives Ohio State an edge over Wisconsin in terms of talent and optionality under center.
Sure, when Ohio State and Wisconsin play, high-flying offense isn’t often the first thing that comes to mind. Both teams are known for stout defenses and hard-nosed rushers, but on Saturday, the matchup may come down to quarterback play. The Badgers certainly have the edge on defense—they’re ranked No. 1 in total defense and are almost equally strong against the pass and the run—but it’s not a wide gap between them and Ohio State, which boasts the country’s No. 8 unit, allowing opponents 291.8 yards per game, compared with Wisconsin’s 236.9. Points will be hard to come by in Indianapolis, and it’ll take a balanced offensive attack to rack up any kind of scoring.
Both teams can run. Freshman Jonathan Taylor has been one of the most exciting parts of Wisconsin’s season; he’s averaging 7.0 yards per carry and has racked up 1,806 yards this year. And for Ohio State, fellow freshman J.K. Dobbins has 1,190 yards this season. What’s up in the air, then, is quarterback play. Who will start for Ohio State? Is Barrett truly healthy, and is Haskins as good as he appeared last week? Will Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook be as turnover-happy as he was most of the season?
This may come down to that last question. Hornibrook is tied with Washington State’s Luke Falk for the most interceptions thrown by any Power Five quarterback, with 13—and Falk has attempted nearly 300 more passes this season than the Wisconsin quarterback. His interception rate is the highest in college football, but the Badgers have been able to work around those inconsistencies thanks to Taylor and their borderline immovable defense. Against a team like Ohio State (which is Wisconsin’s toughest opponent this year by quite a margin), which has an offense strong enough to wear down the Badgers’ defense, Hornibrook will have a far smaller margin of error than usual. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have options. Barrett is a dual-threat quarterback who’s flourished in the passing game this year under new coordinator Kevin Wilson; Haskins is more of a traditional, pro-style signal-caller, a style that might enjoy more success against Wisconsin’s defense.
Going into Saturday, Ohio State is a 6.5-point favorite despite having two losses while Wisconsin is undefeated. Vegas has set an over-under of 53, which is higher than the point total in all but three of Wisconsin’s 2017 games. (Ohio State, meanwhile, has itself scored more than 50 points in four games this year.) And if the Buckeyes can establish their offense and confuse the Badgers’ defense early—which has happened to Wisconsin several times already this year—it may be tough for Paul Chryst’s team to play catch-up or pull ahead the way it has in earlier games.