Bullets Must Decide Whether To Go Big

Ohio State hasn't used too many three-linebacker sets this year on defense, but Wisconsin is probably the biggest offense the Buckeyes will face this year. So will the Buckeyes match up by going big or will they stick to what they've done most of the year? The answer could determine whether OSU comes out with the win Saturday night.

The stark reality of how Wisconsin beat a No. 1-ranked Ohio State team a season ago was summed up thusly by senior defensive tackle Dexter Larimore after the 31-18 final in Madison a year ago.

"I don't think I've ever experienced a team that they'd just ram it down our throat and we'd have no answer," Larimore said. "They lined up and said, ‘You can't stop the run,' and obviously we didn't have an answer for it."

If the Buckeyes hope to upset the No. 12 Badgers this time around in Saturday night's showdown game, it's clear things will have to be different.

A year ago, the Buckeyes – who finished third in the nation in rushing defense at only 96.7 yards allowed per game – gave up a season-high total of 184 yards against the Badgers.

Wisconsin ran the ball 43 times against 16 passes, and John Clay finished with 104 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries to become the first OSU opponent to top the century mark on the ground in 29 games. James White added 75 yards and had the game-clinching score.

More than that, Ohio State appeared to be physically dominated up front, as Larimore alluded to. The Buckeyes had only two tackles for loss on the day, as the defensive line struggled to get into the backfield and the linebackers were often eclipsed by the Badgers' massive offensive line that averaged 320 pounds per person.

Part of the problem was that senior weakside linebacker Ross Homan was hurt in the game, missing most of the last three quarters. With Etienne Sabino already taking a redshirt and other linebackers as well as nickel back Tyler Moeller banged up, the Buckeyes had to put overmatched 219-pound Jonathan Newsome in at strongside linebacker.

There is the potential to add more beef to the equation this time around. With Sabino off his redshirt season, the Buckeyes could revert to using the base defense they showed in fall camp with Andrew Sweat (6-2, 238) on the weak side, Storm Klein (6-2, 240) in the middle and Sabino (6-3, 242) a much bigger option than Newsome on the strong side.

The Buckeyes haven't showed much of that look on the year, instead rotating Klein and Sabino at the Mike spot and going with a variety of other looks. Early in the season, defensive end Nathan Williams played some strongside linebacker; when he was hurt, the Buckeyes eventually decided to go with two linebackers and play Moeller – who has played Sam linebacker at Ohio State but stands only 6-0, 210 pounds – in most run situations.

OSU has also showed a third-down dime look with sophomore Christian Bryant (5-9, 190) playing the "Star" position, a combination linebacker/safety spot that is generally described the team's nickel back Moeller fills in most situations.

"Tyler is still a big part of it," head coach Luke Fickell said of this week's game plan. "Sometimes what they put out there dictates what you put out there. We'll have a game plan and continue to go with it. I would imagine you'll see a little bit more of a three-linebacker set at times that we haven't seen much of this year."

As Fickell alluded to, Ohio State will likely try to hit a balance between putting size on the field against the Badgers and going around them if possible. After all, any defense would have a hard time matching up physically against an offense that averages 6-5, 322 pounds on the line and uses a variety of tight ends and fullbacks to set the edge and get to linebackers.

That's where a quick playmaker like Moeller can step up as a change of pace and hopefully wreak havoc by getting to spots before the Wisconsin blockers.

"I think you'll see a good mixture of both (looks)," Sabino said, referencing the three-LB set and the nickel formations.

The Buckeyes have also upped the beef quotient on the defensive line. With the injury to Williams, who played the linebacker/end spot known as the Leo, the Buckeyes made their base set include four linemen who would be tackles on most teams in John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Adam Bellamy and Garrett Goebel. Hankins checks in at a towering 335 pounds, while Simon is the smallest of the group at 270 pounds.

The hope is those space eaters – most of whom can rotate between end and tackle spots – will keep the offensive linemen from getting to the second level and allow the linebackers and safeties behind them to roam free.

"I like who we got," Fickell said. "They know what it's about. They know the challenge they have in front of them. It's all talk until we go out Saturday and perform."

On the year, Ohio State averages 116.6 yards per game allowed on the ground, giving up more than 200 in losses to Miami and Nebraska. Wisconsin, meanwhile, enters eighth in the nation in rushing offense at 252.1 yards per game behind the efforts of backs Montee Ball and White.

Adding in an improved passing game under senior transfer Russell Wilson, the Badgers have topped 30 points in each game and have the tools to score every which way. However, Sabino said the defense's biggest key is still shutting down Wisconsin's rushing offense, and the way to do that is simple.

"The biggest thing is we just have to be physical with them because they're a big, physical group, and we're going to get after them," Sabino said.

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