Second Thoughts: Wisconsin

The second viewing of the Ohio State-Wisconsin was delightful for someone who likes to analyze play in the trenches because a lot of good work went on there. That lesson and more can be found in this week's edition of "Second Thoughts."

What did I learn on the second viewing of Ohio State's 31-24 win over Wisconsin? The No. 1 reason the Buckeyes stopped the Badgers' vaunted running game was pretty simple – the defensive line won battles up front and the linebackers played very well.

That is notable to me because I thought going into the game they might need more help from the secondary to slow down Melvin Gordon, James White and Co., but after C.J. Barnett threw Gordon to the turf after a short gain on the first play of the game, the front seven handle most of the heavy lifting all night.

Ryan Shazier was as good as expected, attacking the line of scrimmage but generally playing under control, and Joshua Perry did an excellent job setting the edge whenever they went after him.

If the point of attack was 5-technique end Joey Bosa (such as on the first play) or Adolphus Washington, they were almost always up to the task of holding the line while help came from all around. Joel Hale regularly demanded double teams, and Michael Bennett was almost never blocked with one man. I expressed some concern in the spring if Bennett would be too light for a game like this, but he was fine.

Noah Spence continued to display the freak athleticism that will have him playing on Sundays. Spence is going to have to diversify his pass rush moves as he gets older, but he is solid against the run as long as he doesn't get too wide or deep in the backfield, and his speed on the outside can be devastating. Wisconsin right tackle Tyler Marz had a nightmare of a game, and Spence was often to blame as he wheeled around him trying to get to the quarterback. Mraz could do nothing with the other ends in the running game, either.

But the guy I want to highlight most of all is Curtis Grant. I was hard on him earlier in the season for playing too passive, waiting for the play to come to him too often, but that was not a problem Saturday night. He was really impressive in all facets – recognizing plays, attacking the line of scrimmage, beating blockers and making tackles. He had seven tackles and a sack, but there were other times he did his job by eliminating a blocker so someone else could finish things off.

Now, what about the pass defense? Well, I thought upon closer inspection Roby's night wasn't as bad as it felt live. That is in part because some respect goes to Jared Abbrederis for just being a very tough check. He is a big guy who runs great routes, so he can't be bullied. Now, that said, Roby has aspirations of being a first-round pick, so the plays he gave up are harder to dismiss in that light. He was there with Abbrederis but lost a handfight on the first TD, but the way he bit on a double move on the Badgers' second-quarter touchdown drive was inexcusable. That should have been a touchdown, but Joel Stave underthrew the ball. The holding penalty on Roby in the fourth quarter was pretty phantom, but the third-quarter pass interference was probably a good one.

While Stave was more accurate and consistent than he had been earlier in the season, the number of receivers running free is alarming. Abbrederis' 64-yard catch looked like a blown coverage, but it is hard to know for sure without hearing the defensive call. From my vantage point, Roby might have been playing a different defense than the rest of the unit because both Roby and Elliott played the flat receiver while Barnett showed no inclination to attach to Abbrederis.

The Buckeyes got some pressure on Stave with the front four but not enough if that is the entire way they planned to get to him, and judging by the near complete absence of blitzes it was.

They did not play much nickel but instead shifted almost entirely from the base 4-3 (with a couple of variations) to the dime with the three-man line. The 30 front gives them some flexibility in blitz packages, but they almost always drop seven or eight into coverage. Whether or not that fits your personal philosophy, the problem then became that too often there were guys open for Stave to find, particularly given the fact Abbrederis is almost literally the only receiving threat on the team aside from White.

So on one hand the defense gets major kudos for making Wisconsin into a passing team – I thought they would be able to control the running game because Gordon is more of a guy who takes advantages of bad tackling than one breaks good tackles – but the yardage the Buckeyes gave up is cause for some concern moving forward.

Now, what about the offense?

Braxton Miller showed why he is the man at quarterback. He's still got a ways to go in the consistency department, but he hit several deep throws and looked pretty good in the short game, too. He was bailed out on a bad under throw that should have been intercepted by Sojourn Shelton late in the first half, but the throw Miller came back with to Philly Brown was a thing of beauty. (And I thought Kirk Herbstreit's analysis there was off – I think the safety Southward was supposed to pick him up but didn't.)

Miller had a handful of runs that no quarterback in the country could make, too, so his presence in the lineup was certainly an overall positive. It can be hard to know exactly when a play is a zone read or inverted veer or a designed handoff, but he appeared to make the right choice more often than not when it looked like there was an option.

It's interesting that Tom Herman said Monday they want to run until a team stops them because I didn't get that impression from how he called the game Saturday. Wisconsin respected the Ohio State passing game enough I thought there was more of a chance to run the ball, but obviously things worked out. There were only a couple of times they ran into a stacked front, but the Badgers rarely overloaded the box.

The left side of the line continues to be the unit's strength, and Carlos Hyde looked like a difference maker. More than once he kept the feet moving and used his strength to stretch short runs into medium gains. There was an exception on a third down run just prior to the last Wisconsin scoring drive, though. He might have lost track of where the first-down marker was because he ran out of bounds just shy and had a chance to get the last yard he needed if he lowered his shoulder at the sideline.

This was not the first time Wisconsin tried to match up with its corners and mostly failed, so the coaching staff might want to rethink its strategy moving forward. Ohio State made its share of big plays through the air and left a few more on the field as Shelton in particular really struggled.

That said, a few mistakes kept the win from being more convincing. The deep ball that went through Devin Smith's hands on the first drive of the third quarter has to be caught. He had beaten Shelton again on that play, and a sack of Miller in the fourth quarter knocked them out of range to try a field goal or consider going for it on fourth down. The errant snap from Corey Linsley on second down of the last OSU offensive possession also made it pretty certain the Buckeyes would have to punt.

Other notes and observations:

  • Early use of play action boot legs was smart to give Miller easy reads. For all the progress he has made in the pocket, he's still probably most comfortable throwing on the run.

  • Chris Borland is just a great all-around player. Great tackler, very instinctual. Is quick and runs well enough. He uses his lack of height to his advantage by getting better leverage. He can also rush the passer, as he showed when he put a nasty spin move on Taylor Decker to get to Miller and disrupt Ohio State's early momentum. The tight end appeared to be breaking open if Miller's line of sight was clear.

  • I think the Bryant injury is big because two of his potential replacements – Tyvis Powell and Corey Brown – have received a lot of playing time this season but done very little to stand out. Powell was credited with a breakup late in the game but probably had the ground to thank for it. I am interested to see if Vonn Bell or Devan Bogard – who had a nice hit on the opening kickoff – can make some noise here.

  • As referenced above, Shelton made one kind of good play but was otherwise pretty much toast.

  • Buckeyes come out with a couple of quick passes for control plays then go to the ground in the third quarter. Very effective until Smith's drop.

  • I think Ohio State crossed up Wisconsin on Grant's sack. He ran right through the gap created by the pulling guard on a play-action move the Badgers had used all night with some success.

  • Ohio State showed blitz but backed out on Roby's interception. Stave and his receiver were not on the same page with Roby squatting in coverage. Washington had pressure on the play.

  • When Dontre Wilson was in the game, Wisconsin seemed to treat him like a runner as opposed to a receiver. Of course his 15-yard run in which he cut back all the way across the field was one of those plays that just showed the difference in skill players between the two teams.

  • Miller made a good read on his last touchdown pass as he waited for the safety to commit to the run then slipped a pass behind him to Philly Brown in the end zone.

  • I like the color of the helmets themselves but the black of the outside stripe, face masks and chinstraps was too prominent. That overwhelmed the look. You know, in case you wondered.

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