MADSION, Wis. — One of the biggest successes of this Wisconsin football team five games into the season is the strength and physicality of the defense, a defense that will face potentially their greatest challenge against a #2 ranked Ohio State offense.
“It’s a really good, sound scheme. They’ve got really good coaches, and they’ve got really good players that understand their role,” head coach Paul Chryst said in his weekly press conference on Monday.
No. 2 Ohio State is 5-0 and 2nd in the Big Ten East behind 6-0 Michigan. Four of their five games have been highly mismatched with the Buckeyes winning by at least three touchdowns and, against Rutgers, a 58-0 shutout.
Against the Indiana Hoosiers last week, Ohio earned their fifth win of the season though with less finesse than previous games. Ohio State’s quarterback J.T. Barrett was held to 9 of 21 throws for 93 yards. Though the Indiana defense slowed the junior quarterback, who was awarded the National Freshman of the Year in 2014, Barrett again showed his ability to run the ball, contributing to 137 yards of the Buckeye’s running offense.
“I think he’s talented enough to be able to hurt you in all the different ways. He’s a really great quarterback,” Chryst said.
Wisconsin defensive players recognized the dual threat nature of Barrett immediately. In his two previous seasons with the Buckeyes, Barrett has 45 touchdowns and 3,826 yards in the passing game and 22 touchdowns and 1,665 yards in the run game.
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt said the biggest threat Barrett holds is his versatility.
“The amount of things he can do,” Watt said. “If you want to keep him in the pocket, he’s going to pick you apart in the passing game. If you want to take away the pass game, they’re going to run as well.”
Inside linebacker Jack Cichy said so far this season, the defense hasn’t faced a quarterback that is truly as dynamic as Barrett.
“He’s big; he’s physical,” Cichy said. “He can beat you with his arm and his leg. He’s got great speed, and he’s got a powerful arm. We’ve just got to keep him in check by doing our 1/11th.”
While Ohio State’s wide receivers have not been performing to the same standards as 2015 receiving leaders in Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall, the receiving corps as a whole has been able to move the ball downfield. This season Curtis Samuel leads the team in receptions with 23 for 345 yards and four touchdowns. Behind him is Dontre Wilson with 15 receptions for 189 yards and four touchdowns. Despite the lack of high numbers, Barrett has passed 15 different targets and has shown his ability to find the open receivers to create plays.
Ohio State’s run game is another threat with both a mobile quarterback and the threat of redshirt freshman Mike Weber who replaced current Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot this year. Weber seems to be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, already having 83 carries for 566 yards and four touchdowns this season. The team’s leader in receptions is also number two in the run game. Curtis Samuel, a running back/halfback, has 50 carries for 410 yards and three touchdowns.
“They have a lot of good athletes,” Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “When they get on the perimeter, they’re good at making people miss one on one. Obviously having a dual threat quarterback in T.J. Barrett, that’s just another person you’ll have to account for. And the tempo offense that they run, that’s something we’re going to have to slow down come game time.”
The Badgers linebacking unit stressed the need for constant communication on the field against the Ohio State offense.
“You see with Ohio State, they live off big plays,” Cichy said. “Honestly, a lot of times it just comes because one person might be out of place or do the wrong job. Our communication has to be on point so we limit those explosive plays.”
Cichy also stressed that Wisconsin’s front seven will have a great challenge in facing Ohio’s offensive line. “They’re able to move people off the ball,” he said.
While Ohio State’s offense is full of playmakers, Wisconsin’s defense has been able to control and slow the movement of the ball and make their own plays in the first five games this season.
Cichy believes a lot of that success has been a result of the personal growth of every player on the defense. “We have a little more experience under our belt. We’ve had more plays, more games, more big games. I think that comes with maturity. As a unit, we’ve matured a lot,” Cichy said. “I look around at the guys around me and they are war horses. They’re fun to be around. They take their craft seriously, so it’s exciting to be around them.”
Wisconsin’s defense has the power to control the tempo of the game and give Hornibrook and his offense the time and opportunities to put points on the board, something the offense struggled with two weeks ago versus Michigan. Players stressed that they are not focusing on past games.
“We’re not looking in the rear view mirror at all,” Watt said.
This week’s scheme against Ohio does not vary much from Michigan. Wisconsin will take the same tough, grinding strength against Ohio State’s offense in attempt to bring home the win in a highly anticipated night game at Camp Randall.
“Every team is faceless for us. It’s just another opponent and no matter who it is we just have to go out there and give it our 110 percent,” Dooley said. “Something that we always pride ourselves in is being physical and that’s what we want to do, we want to out-physical the other team.”