This was supposed to be one of the best games of the season. A showdown of top six proportions. It’s not that anymore, but it’s still big.
To quickly recap, Ohio State is 7-0 and looking like a team that can compete with the Alabamas and Clemsons of the world for the College Football Playoff. Up until last week, Wisconsin might have been up there with them. Then the Badgers blew it in a stunning 24-23 road loss to Illinois. The dagger came on a last-second field goal. Wisconsin allowed too many big plays and didn’t make enough of its own.
So here we are, with Wisconsin visiting Ohio State on Saturday. The matchup isn’t as big as everyone had hoped, but it’s still important. An Ohio State win means Ryan Day’s team is still in the Big Ten and national championship hunts, while Wisconsin would have two losses and likely be out of league title contention. But a Wisconsin win means it can still win the conference and put Ohio State in a tough spot with the selection committee.
There’s a lot at stake Saturday. Here are three things to keep in mind while you watch:
1. Can Ohio State Avoid an Upset?
Despite Wisconsin’s stunning loss last week, this game remains Ohio State’s biggest test yet. Day admitted as much this week when he said, “This is by far the biggest challenge we’ve had, on both sides of the ball.” So, there you go. The Buckeyes haven’t really beaten anyone impressive this year, with the toughest games coming against Cincinnati, Nebraska and Michigan State. This team has also won every game by at least two possessions and needs stiffer competition.
Now, the big question for the Buckeyes becomes whether it can avoid a massive blow this season. It was around this time last fall that Purdue shocked No. 2 Ohio State, 49-20, which ultimately kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff. They had a similar situation in 2017, losing to unranked Iowa. This team is striving for that perfect record and knows it can’t mess up if it wants to win the Big Ten, make the playoff and contend for a national championship.
Many Ohio State players who spoke with reporters this week said they watched the Wisconsin-Illinois game and were hoping it would be a matchup between undefeated teams. Day watched, too. “That’s college football,” he said. “We’ve been on the other side of that. We know all about that.”
Ohio State heads into this game assuming Wisconsin is still a very good team and just didn’t have it last week. If that’s true, this game could come down to the fourth quarter. There’s also a 100% chance of rain in Columbus on Saturday, which could cause some chaos.
2. Containing Jonathan Taylor
The biggest X-factor on Saturday will be Heisman Trophy contender Jonathan Taylor. The Wisconsin RB is tied for the national lead with 15 rushing touchdowns and is also averaging 136.7 rushing yards per game.
“He’s strong, fast, can change direction, powerful, guys bounce off him, runs with an attitude,” Day said this week. “A lot of guys that big don’t have the agility he has. He has good agility. He can run away. He’s good out of the backfield. He’s caught the ball. He’s kind of an all-purpose back.”
Last year, the Buckeyes had the 71st-ranked defense, and were 57th nationally in rushing defense while allowing opponents to go for 4.5 yards per carry. This year they’ve improved significantly under the direction of new co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley and boast the nation’s No. 2 unit (a spot behind Wisconsin), holding teams to a nation’s fourth-best 2.5 yards per rush. Can Ohio State’s defense, led by future first round draft pick Chase Young, stop the Badgers’ offense? Or will Taylor find the creases and run right through them?
3. Wisconsin Still Has a Chance
Wisconsin heads into Saturday with an opportunity to potentially get itself back into the playoff conversation. All it takes is beating Ohio State and winning its remaining games (and probably needing a Power 5 champion or two to lose another game). That would give the Badgers enough quality wins (assuming they win out, they’d have wins over Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota and either Ohio State again or Penn State in the conference title game) to make an argument. A Buckeyes loss would also throw the Big Ten into some major turmoil.
It’s not like Wisconsin was blown out by Illinois. It lost by a point on a last-second field goal on the road. Win this game and Wisconsin has at least a chance here to mitigate that midseason disaster.
But how to do that? The Badgers converted 9 of 17 third downs, outgained Illinois 420-315 and led by two possessions in the fourth quarter. But three turnovers (two fumbles, one interception) and giving up three plays of 20-yards or more on second-half scoring drives (like that 43-yard touchdown run) hurt them in the end.
Wisconsin’s path to the Big Ten title and maybe even the playoff gets trickier with a loss on Saturday. Wisconsin would likely be out of the Big Ten West picture, at least as long as Minnesota keeps winning. The undefeated Gophers still have to play Iowa and Wisconsin, but even a one-loss Minnesota team goes to Indianapolis over a two-loss Wisconsin.