The Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) head to Columbus this Saturday for a primetime showdown with the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0) on ABC.
The game represents a significant opportunity for the Badgers to kick off Big Ten play against arguably the top team in the conference and one of the best teams in the entire country.
To help preview the big game, Brendan Gulick of Buckeyes Now answered a six-pack of questions about Ohio State to provide insight into how the Buckeyes have looked so far this season.
Injury-wise, how healthy is Ohio State heading into this weekend's contest?
Ryan Day said Monday night that the injuries to running back TreVeyon Henderson, defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr., safety Josh Proctor and nickel Tanner McCalister were not considered serious and that he expects all of them to be available on Saturday night.
Beyond that, Ohio State has been largely healthy this year. Jaxon Smith-Njigba injured his hamstring early in the Notre Dame game, but he returned to the field last week. Julian Fleming made his season debut last weekend as well after missing the first couple of games with a nagging injury.
The coaching staff has said on a couple of occasions that they really want to get freshman DB Jordan Hancock on the field ASAP, but he’s been unavailable the first 3 games this season. Running back Evan Pryor suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp, which was a bummer because he was primed to see some time this year behind Henderson and Miyan Williams. The other players that have suffered injuries are not high-impact players right now.
As far as we know publicly, the Buckeyes are largely pretty healthy starting Big Ten play.
Let's start on the defense. Jim Knowles, new defensive coordinator. What are your early impressions of him and how has the defense performed thus far?
Knowles has brought a rejuvenated energy to the defense. I love the guy. He’s gruff, a little soft-spoken, and sports a scruffy beard that is kinda caught between a full beard and clean-shaven. He wears his hat low over his eyes, he sips his coffee at alarmingly fast intervals sometimes. … He’s quite a character.
His group is fast, violent and has shown to be substantially tougher so far this season than they were the last two years. It’s no secret - the Buckeyes will go as far as the defense can take them. Ryan Day and his staff have a monster on their hands and it sure feels like exceptionally few teams are going to hang with them this year.
Tommy Eichenberg is playing significantly better this season and he’s the leader of the defense at linebacker. He’s a lot like Knowles - doesn’t say much, but his actions do all the talking. He flies to the ball. Steele Chambers and Cody Simon have played well rotating at the other linebacker spot.
Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, and Mike Hall are game wreckers on the D-Line. Hall has erupted on the scene this year after not showing much since coming to campus as a true freshman last year.
Ronnie Hickman is a stud and led the team in tackles last year. He’s incredibly fast and it feels like he’s always near the ball. He doesn’t waste movements. He sees the play and just reacts. He’s fun to watch.
Cam Brown and Denzel Burke have largely played well so far, but Burke in particular has made a few costly mistakes in the first couple of games and fans are really upset with him. He was a freshman All-American corner from Arizona and played great last year, but he’s off to a slightly slower start.
The most notable difference with the D this year is their physicality, especially at the line of scrimmage. It’s early, but Notre Dame’s offensive line is its strength and the Buckeyes totally shut down the Irish rushing attack.
On offense, CJ Stroud rightfully gets a lot of the headlines. What makes him such a tremendous college quarterback?
Stroud is impressive for so many reasons, but I suppose the thing I have grown to appreciate most about him is his poise. He takes a lot of flak for not running the ball when it seems like he could pick up easy yards. He is fantastic at extending the pocket and can make every throw you want. His highlight reel is ridiculous. His arm strength is absolutely good enough to be a good player at the next level.
He’ll stand on the right hash and throw a rope to the left sideline - those are the kinds of throws scouts really look at. He can drive the ball downfield with touch or with velocity. He’s playing with confidence, he makes the right decisions and it’s becoming extremely rare that he turns it over.
Don’t kid yourself though … almost every good quarterback looks good because he’s got weapons around him. Stroud has elite talent all around him.
Great segway...It seems like OSU wide receivers coach Brian Hartline continues to stockpile wide-outs, but the running back position is also extremely talented. Who are the weapons around Stroud that Wisconsin fans should know?
Coach Hartline has done a ridiculous job recruiting and developing talent over the last few years, and combined with Ryan Day’s offensive system, it’s become the premier place to play wide receiver in college football. Jaxon Smith-Njigba is one of the best receivers in school history, and the offense is far better when he’s on the field. But we’ve seen some awfully special stuff from Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka so far. Those guys got big opportunities last year in the Rose Bowl when Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave sat out. JSN broke the all-time bowl record for receiving yards in that game, as Ohio State broke 17 Rose Bowl records that night.
These guys are all capable of making the 1-in-100 type of play, but it’s the little things they do that impress me. They are elite route runners, they block well in the run game and they can create separation so well. This is a really special group.
Last weekend was the second time in school history (the first was last year) in which the Bucks had three receivers accumulate 100+ receiving yards in a single game. Ohio State had 736 yards of total offense last week, of which more than 400 came through the air.
For as much attention as the receivers are getting, honestly, my favorite player to watch on the entire team is tight end, Cade Stover. He’s huge, he’s tough and he’s proving that he’s an NFL-caliber tight end. Stover has floated a bit between TE and LB during his career, but he is the quintessential Buckeye. A total “yes coach, whatever you need, coach,” grab your lunch pail and go to work kind of kid. He’s a blue-collar kid who grew up on a farm, and he plays like it. He’s a really special player and he’s starting to get targeted more in the passing game.
Xavier Johnson is a former walk-on that earned a scholarship and stepped in nicely in Week 1 when JSN went down. Johnson caught the game-sealing touchdown at home against Notre Dame, which was an incredibly cool moment for him. He’s a really humble kid who doesn’t say much but is grateful for his opportunity. It was fun to talk to him after that season-opening win.
Having now seen the Buckeyes for three weeks, what are the strengths of the team, and are there any weaknesses in your eyes?
This team has the pieces to win a national championship for sure, but talent only takes you so far. They learned the hard way last year that they aren’t going to walk in a stadium and just win because they’re good. They know they’re getting every team’s best shot.
In my opinion, their biggest strength is the fact that they were told for 9 months how soft they were and that they didn’t know how to win tough games. Michigan didn’t just beat them last year, they pounded the Buckeyes in the second half. OSU couldn’t stop the run at all. I think the changes on the defensive coaching staff, combined with a year of experience for last year’s young team, as well as an attitude adjustment we are clearly seeing on defense, have this team ready to prove they can get it done.
Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s national championship or bust this year.
I’m not sure there is a true “weakness”, although the secondary has been a little spotty at times in the first couple of games. It’s not a glaring weakness, but I’d like to see that group playing better as the season progresses.
This year's Ohio State team is once again one of the top contenders for the College Football Playoff. How does the 2022 version of the Buckeyes compare to the past few seasons?
This team reminds me a lot of the 2019 team. They’ve got the offensive firepower and seemingly a far better defensive scheme than they had last year. For three of the last four years, the defense has stunk (by their own standards). 2019 was a big year and Ohio State really felt like it got robbed against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl that year. They got their revenge in 2020 against the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, but the CoVID year was a nightmare and Alabama steamrolled a short-handed Buckeyes team in the national title game.
They’ve got the playmakers, they have the leadership, and they have the right mix of upper-classmen and young players that can contribute. It’s a long season and we are only 3 games in. But this team passes the eye test right now. Marcus Freeman, Butch Jones, and Jason Candle have all made comments after the first three games that the Buckeyes look like the kind of team that will be the last one standing.
With any luck, Ohio State fans will actually get the chance they were hoping for last year to see this offense play Georgia’s defense. But there are a lot of good teams standing between now and then, and that certainly includes the Badgers this weekend.
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