Saturday night marks perhaps the most important game in the history of Wisconsin football. Never before has Wisconsin finished their regular season undefeated, and never before have they ranked among the top 4 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings. The general public, however, still feel Wisconsin is an underdog, simply a result of their light schedule. Like it or not, the Big Ten Championship Game will settle those debates swiftly. Should Wisconsin win, respect is more than deserved. Should Wisconsin lose, the season will be remembered in five years as an eventual letdown.
If there’s a single characteristic of this Wisconsin team to give fans confidence, it’s the defense. All year long, they’ve been the driving force behind the undefeated streak. Twelve Wisconsin defensemen took home All-Big Ten honors, a ridiculous but well-deserved number. Their merit is unquestioned, yet Ohio State is the most potent offense Wisconsin’s faced by a country mile.
Ohio State is averaging an absurd 43.8 points per game, and have the potential to seriously attack a defense from more angles than Wisconsin has had to deal with all year. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who is officially probable, has passed for more than 2000 yards on the year, and run for nearly 700. His versatility and obvious athleticism will dominate Wisconsin’s focus all night. In addition to his yardage totals, he also has more TDs on the ground than their lead rusher J.K. Robbins, who’s eclipsed 1100 yards on the year. The two-headed monster of Barrett and Robbins will be hard to ignore, but if Wisconsin can play their brand of smart, conservatively effective and disruptive defense, it could be a long night for the flashy Buckeye offensive attack.
Here are three points of emphasis leading up to Saturday’s primetime showdown.
Diversify linebacking involvement
It’s no secret, Wisconsin’s linebackers are the core and heart of its defense. TJ Edwards is All-Big Ten first team, Garrett Dooley received second-team honors while both Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs received honorable mention nods. In essence, the entire linebacking corps are some of the best in the conference.
As such, every offensive eye will be focused on their roles play-to-play. That sort of attention can play as an advantage for Wisconsin, however. Disguising zone coverage as a blitz, assigning one linebacker into coverage and another to rush the QB and launching an all-out assault on the offensive line are just three options for an athletic and dominant linebacking sector.
Limit physical penalties
Wisconsin’s secondary has been incredibly effective all year, breaking up momentum shifting passes at just the right moment. However, against a team as aggressive Ohio State, who’ll push the pace all game and won’t be afraid to haul the ball downfield, it is crucial for those in pass coverage to make a play on the ball, not the receiver.
On drives where the defense seems in control, penalties like pass interferences that yield such high yardage sums can shift the momentum without the offense earning a single yard. Wisconsin’s defense must stay disciplined all night if they hope to shut down an electric Ohio State offense.
Be able to adapt
The Ohio State offense is far from one dimensional. Unlike opponents of the past, Wisconsin will have a hard time exploiting a glaring weakness from the Buckeye attack. Instead, Wisconsin will have to compile simply their best defensive performance of the season.
To do this, adaptability to recognize offensive schemes, including read options, bubble screens and misdirections will play a central role in Wisconsin walking away with the biggest W in school history.
There’s no doubt Ohio State will be facing arguably the best defense they’ve seen all year, and as such, deciding a victor could come down to the matchup between the Wisconsin defense and the Ohio State offense.