After a couple instant classics the last two seasons (a 31-18 Wisconsin victory over No.1 Ohio State in 2010 and a 33-29 victory by Ohio State over the 15th-ranked Badgers that caused the students to rush the field), the two schools are expected to have another classic on Saturday in UW's home finale.
But just how good is the sixth-ranked them in the country? Where has Braxton Miller improved the most from last season? Is the Buckeyes' defense the most suspect? To find out more, Badger Nation reached out to Buckeye Sports Bulletin managing editor Mark Rea to get some insight on the Ohio State.
BadgerNation.com publisher Benjamin Worgull and SpartanDigest.com publisher Dave Berk talk about Saturday's game getting a more in-depth look at the Badgers.
Badger Nation: After the drubbing of Illinois, Ohio State got to enjoy its bye week. What were some big concerns or injuries that the Buckeyes were able to take care of over the last week?
Rea: OSU gets fifth-year senior linebacker Etienne Sabino back after a four-week absence with a broken bone in his leg. Getting Sabino back helps a depleted LB corps that will be needed against Wisconsin's powerful run game.
Badger Nation: Braxton Miller looks like a far different QB than what the Badgers saw last year. How has he elevated his game and made the players around him better?
Rea: Miller is maturing as all good players do with more experience. He is becoming a better passer although he's not quite there yet. His running and his ability to make defenders miss is what sets him apart. He is really flourishing in the system installed by Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman, which is to unbridle Miller's athleticism.
Badger Nation: Urban Meyer said LB Etienne Sabino will start at Wisconsin but RB Bri'onte Dunn is out with an MCL sprain. How does the impact of those two players affect the game?
Rea: As mentioned above, Sabino will help Ohio State try to slow down Wisconsin's run game. Dunn was a third-team tailback, so his value in Saturday's game was going to be limited. However, the Buckeyes are down to only two tailbacks -- Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith -- and they'll have to find someone to take over Dunn's responsibilities on kickoff returns.
Badger Nation: Ohio State's offensive line was one of the issues last season, but the Buckeyes lineup of four juniors and one senior seems to have been playing really well as of late. How has the unit gelled over the last several weeks?
Rea: Playing together, meshing as a unit, controlling the point of attack ... those are all things the offensive line has done well in recent weeks. The unit excels in run blocking and the offense has topped 50 points three times in 10 games. Of course, it helps to have a guy like Miller making you look good. Also, Hyde has really emerged as an every-down threat.
Badger Nation: Ryan Shazier came up with the big blocked punt in last year's UW-OSU meeting, but he's more than a special teams guy this season. What part or parts of his game make him a difficult matchup?
Rea: Shazier was just a freshman last year, making plays on sheer talent. This year, he is much more focused on his assignments and is playing error-free football for the most part. He needs only two more tackles to become the first OSU sophomore since James Laurinaitis to have 100 stops in a season ... pretty good company. Shazier doesn't stand out at any one thing ... he's just very good at almost everything.
Badger Nation: Ohio State has given up at least 22 points in the last five conference games. How much of an issue/liability are the Buckeyes on that side of the ball?
Rea: Defense has been a problem at times, specifically allowing big plays. Since giving up 49 points against Indiana, however, the unit has been playing better. The run defense has been especially good -- ranking second in the Big Ten only to Wisconsin -- and that should be a point of emphasis Saturday night. Look for Ohio State to stack the box and dare the Badgers to throw.
Badger Nation: Do you think Ohio State will be bringing a lot of pressure or playing mostly zone? What's their plan for a Wisconsin passing attack that has been sporadic for much of the season?
Rea: Based on how they have played the last month or so, and based on the fact the Badgers threw only a handful of times last week against Indiana, I would expect Ohio State to play man coverage on the outside and walk their safeties up for run support.
Badger Nation: Montee Ball is going for the NCAA all-time touchdown mark this weekend. How have the Buckeyes fared against the run, what's the plan to stop Ball?
Rea: As mentioned previously, Ohio State's defensive bread and butter is stopping the run. They didn't do that very well during the early part of the season, but they have really come on lately. Their last two opponents, Penn State and Illinois, combined to rush for only 106 yards on 60 carries, an average of 1.8 yards per attempt. Obviously, Wisconsin's run game is more potent, but you get the draft. Ball rushed for 85 yards against the Buckeyes last year, but 40 of it came on one carry. No doubt Ohio State would accept that again this year and take its chances.
Badger Nation: OSU fans will always view Michigan as the No.1 rival but with the divisional play and close games over the last 11 games, do you think Wisconsin has become a more important rivalry for the Buckeyes?
Rea: I don't think any other school will ever overtake Michigan as Ohio State's No. 1 rival. But with the Big Ten split into divisions now, Ohio State will have to beat Wisconsin (and vice versa) in just about any typical year to have a chance to play in the conference championship game. That means the OSU-UW rivalry will begin to grow even more in the future.
Badger Nation: What's the key to the game for Ohio State this weekend and do you have a prediction for the game?
Rea: I don't think it's any secret that the way to beat Wisconsin is stop Ball and the running game. In the Badgers' three losses this season, they averaged less than 40 yards on the ground. If the Buckeyes can keep Wisconsin to around 100 yards rushing, they have a good chance to win. If, however, they cannot corral Ball or James White, and they get into some kind of shootout with the Badgers, they will have to rely on Miller to pull something out of the fire like he did last year.
As far as predictions are concerned, I'm torn between the prospects of an undefeated season and the fact that I have seen too many potential undefeated seasons go down in flames. Still, you wouldn't expect me to go any other way, so I will take Ohio State in a close one, 31-27.