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SQ Big Ten Championship Preview

Rick Wood-USA Today

In a rematch of the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, both Ohio State and Wisconsin will try to keep their playoff hopes alive on Saturday.

After an exciting regular season that saw upsets, nail-biting finishes, and plenty of surprises, Wisconsin and Ohio State are left standing as the two division champions in the Big Ten. The two will square off this Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium for the conference title.

The Buckeyes have had a disappointing season by their standards, losing two regular season games for the first time since 2011. On the other side, the Badgers are the only Power Five team left undefeated and are just one win away from clinching a College Football Playoff Berth. Let’s take a look at the keys to this heavyweight matchup and the implications that this game has for both sides.

Storylines heading into the game

Wisconsin finally gets an opportunity to prove themselves-Throughout the year, Wisconsin has taken a lot of heat from the media because of their soft schedule. According to the Sagarin ratings, the Badgers rank 61st in strength of schedule, which is the worst out of the current top 10 teams. This has also been reflected in the College Football Playoff Rankings, as Wisconsin is currently fourth despite being the only undefeated team left in the Power Five conferences. This week, they’ll finally get the opportunity to prove themselves as serious title contenders against eighth-ranked Ohio State.

J.T. Barrett’s health-Barrett left last week’s contest against rival Michigan in the third quarter with an apparent knee injury, and wasn’t able to return. Barrett aggravated a knee injury that the star quarterback had been dealing with all season when he collided with “a guy with a camera” prior to the game. Barrett’s status for Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game is still uncertain, and it seems that even if Barrett does play he won’t be 100% healthy. If Barrett can’t play, freshman Dwayne Haskins will get the starting nod, who has seen some action in mop-up duty. Haskins has completed over 70 percent of his passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns this year, including completing six of seven passes for 94 yards in relief of Barrett last week. Either way, Urban Meyer’s quarterback position won’t be ideal for their biggest game of the year, which could present issues for their offense.

Alex Hornibrook’s turnover woes-Wisconsin’s identity this season has been pounding the ball on the ground and leaning on their menacing defense to smother opposing offenses. The one thing holding back the Badgers from becoming an unstoppable unit has been quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s trouble with ball security. The sophomore has thrown the fourth most interceptions in the nation (13), but finally broke his streak of eight straight games with at least one interception last week against Minnesota. Has Hornibrook turned the corner, or will he revert back to his turnover ways? We’ll find out on Saturday.

Key Stats

236.9-Wisconsin has given up just 236.9 yards per game, which ranks first in the nation. The Badger’s defense has been arguably the best in all of college football, as they rank first in total defense, second in scoring defense and have racked up 39 sacks this year. However, they have yet to face a dynamic, spread offense that the Buckeyes have. Wisconsin has only faced one top-50 scoring offense this season, which was Florida Atlantic in early September. The Wisconsin defense will get a chance to prove themselves as an elite unit, as they’ll be facing the fifth-highest scoring offense in the nation on Saturday.

7.42-Ohio State has been penalized 7.42 times per game, ranking last in the Big Ten. Urban Meyer’s team has lacked discipline this season, especially plaguing them in their two losses. Ohio State totaled 18 penalties for 182 yards in those games, including defensive end Nick Bosa getting ejected in their second loss at Iowa. Keep an eye on the penalty totals for both teams on Saturday. It could sink Ohio State’s chances of claiming the conference crown.


Penalties/GamePenalty Yards/Game
In Wins7.168.3
In Losses991

4.8-The Badgers are giving up an average of 4.8 points per second half, which is best in the nation. While Wisconsin’s defense has been stingy throughout the season, they have really turned up the heat in the second half of ball games. Wisconsin seems to thrive in the final two quarters, as they also rank sixth in points scored per second half (18.8). If the Buckeyes jump out to a lead in the first half, don’t expect it to last. Head coach Paul Chryst knows how to make key halftime adjustments that could decide this game.

Key Players

J.T. Barrett-The key all season long for the Buckeyes has been the quarterback play of Barrett. In their two losses, Barrett has struggled significantly. He completed only 53.6% of his passes, throwing just three touchdowns and five interceptions in those games. In contrast, Barrett has been outstanding in the Buckeye’s 10 victories. He completed 69.4% of his passes and posted a 15:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Barrett’s quality of play, if he’s healthy enough to play, will be a key factor in Saturday’s game.


Passing Yards/GameTouchdown Passes/GameInterceptions/GameCompletion %
In Wins232.63.269.4
In Losses195.51.52.553.6

Jonathan Taylor-Taylor has burst onto the scene as a freshman, posting very impressive numbers in his first collegiate campaign. Taylor is third in the nation in rushing yards (1,806) and second in the Big Ten in both yards per carry (7.0) and rushing touchdowns (13). Taylor has reached the 100-yard mark on the ground nine times this year, helping Wisconsin control games on the ground. If Taylor can run wild against Ohio State like he has all season, Wisconsin will be well on their way to a College Football Playoff berth. If the Buckeyes can shut down Taylor, Hornibrook will have to make plays in the passing game, which might be a problem for Wisconsin.

Implications

Ohio State-Ohio State started the season ranked second in the AP Poll, but now find themselves at a distant eighth in the College Football Playoff Rankings after a rocky regular season. Despite this, the Buckeyes still have an outside shot at making the playoff with a win and some help.

With the ACC and SEC Champions essentially locks to make the playoff, only two spots are available. The Buckeyes will then be rooting for Oklahoma to beat TCU, as a two-loss Oklahoma team might still be ahead of the Buckeyes due to their head-to-head win earlier in the season. That would leave Alabama and Ohio State as the next-best contenders for the fourth and final playoff spot. Who would the committee side with? Buckeye fans will hope this scenario plays and wait until selection day.

Wisconsin-The Badgers enter as the only Power Five team left undefeated, but find themselves ranked only fourth in the most recent College Football Playoff Rankings. A win for the Badgers would not only clinch a spot in the playoff, but would give them their best win of the season and potentially boost them in the rankings.

Prediction

Wisconsin’s defense has been stout this year, giving up a mere 12 points per game. However, they haven’t seen a spread offense as dynamic as Ohio State’s. I expect the Buckeyes to move the ball downfield successfully, whether it’s Barrett or Haskins under center. On the other side of the football, Wisconsin shouldn’t have any issues running the ball with Jonathan Taylor. Taylor will feast against a Buckeye defense that is giving up over 112 rushing yards per game and will set up play-action passes downfield for Hornibrook.

In the end, this game will be decided by turnovers and plays inside the red zone. I expect Wisconsin’s defense to “bend but not break”, as they’ll hold Ohio State to field goals instead of touchdowns. This will come back to haunt Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes, as Wisconsin’s offense will put up touchdowns thanks to Taylor and the offensive line. Hornibrook will have a breakout game and silence critics who have questioned the Badgers and their soft schedule, as they’ll march into the College Football Playoff undefeated and deserving of the top ranking.

24-16 Wisconsin

Edited by Jeremy Losak.

SQuiz
What school has won the most Big Ten championships?
Created 11/28/17
  1. Iowa
  2. Michigan
  3. Ohio State
  4. Minnesota

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