A couple of weeks ago, a reporter asked Nick Mangold whether or not the physical play of the Big Ten excited him. His response was probably to be expected.
"Oh yeah, if you've got two people coming at each other as hard as they can, it's going to be a nice little clash, and I think that's what we all play football for is the hit," Mangold said. "It definitely gives you an opportunity to go out and hit somebody who is going to try to hit you and try to get that little edge on them. It's definitely exciting."
One thing that Buckeyes can be sure of is that Barry Alvarez's teams are going to be physical. That will start up front on their defensive line.
"They seem to be a very talented group," Mangold said. "They are a great combination of size and speed. They have very good pass rushing moves…I feel that they stop the run better than anyone we have seen this year, and it presents a tremendous challenge for us."
Challenge would be one word.
Obstacle might be more appropriate.
Their last four opponents are averaging only 78.3 yards per game rushing.
Led by defensive tackle (#77) Anttaj Hawthorne and defensive end (#92) Jonathan Welsh, their line is nothing to be toyed with. Those two alone wrecked Penn State's offensive hopes last week with sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hurries. Add defensive end (#98) Darius Jones and tackle (#74) Jason Jefferson, and Wisconsin will present the Buckeye offensive line with serious issues.
At linebacker, senior team captain and Butkus watch list nominee Jeff Mack leads the Badgers in the middle. According to the team's press release, "Wisconsin is 12-2 in the last 14 games when LB Jeff Mack is in the starting lineup. With Mack out of the lineup, the Badgers are 1-5 during that time." One of those losses came last year when Ohio State played the Badgers.
For his part, Mack is very much looking forward to playing the Buckeyes. If for no other reason, they remind him of the Badgers.
"I like those type of teams," Mack said. "Kind of cocky, you know, they know they are good, so they don't really need to change anything. You know, kind of like us, you know what we practice everyday. We go up against Jim and them. We know what they are going to run. It's more about just execution, and I like that."
Given that Ohio State players and coaches have been disappointed week after week with their execution, this could be an uphill climb for the Buckeye offense.
Senior Alex Lewis, a fellow Butkus watch list nominee, will man one outside spot, and at 6'1", 237 he is a playmaker. Lewis has two blocked punts, 41 tackles, and 4.5 tackles for loss this season. The final linebacker is Chris Catalano. A relative newcomer to defense, he started out at wide receiver, moved to defensive back, and now has found a home. The savvy reader will pick up that this is a similar career path taken by the one Cie Grant last season for Ohio State. He might be undersized, but expect Chris to add an element of speed that many linebacking corps lack.
Cornerback Scott Starks and safety Jim Leonhard would start for most teams in the Big Ten. Leonard, a former walk-on, may be undersized, but then again, so was Antoine Winfield. Scott Starks is very nearly a lock down cornerback, making multiple pass break ups last week against Penn State to elevate him to second in the conference in that statistical category.
If there is a relative weakness for this team, it is to be found in the pass defense of the other two members of the secondary (and I stress the word relative). Starting safety Ryan Aiello (#7) specializes in run defense and led the team with 105 tackles last season. Levonne Rowan is the sole newcomer to this unit and, though a speedster, probably its weakest link. Penn State was able to exploit both of them for big plays last weekend. Look for Ohio State to try and do the same with even more talented wideouts than those the Lions put on the field.
The Plan for Wisconsin…
The first priority for Wisconsin will be to communicate well to stop any new wrinkles the Buckeyes have in store for them.
"Well, I'll tell you thing that they create problems with, they give you a lot of different formations," said Alvarez. "They try to scheme you a lot with two and three tight end sets. We had a couple of problems early in the game last year with communication, and if you don't communicate and get lined up properly, they'll take advantage of it, and that's what happened on the first play of the game last year and the play that they scored on. Once we got settled in, than we played okay. So I would say right off the bat, the thing that we're concerned with is making sure we communicate, we get lined up. I would anticipate with two weeks preparation, we'll see some formations and some things that we haven't seen before."
Second, and this goes in tandem with the first, is to stop the Ohio State rushing attack dead in its tracks. Not only will that mean they put an end to the hopes of tailbacks Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross, but Barry Alvarez has noted Craig Krenzel's rushing ability as well. Complimenting Krenzel, he noted, "As far as (Craig) Krenzel, he's a winner. And the thing that surprised me a year ago was his mobility. I had no idea he could run as well as he did. And as you watched games, he pulled the ball down; he moved the chains. He made the right throws, and he's the guy you classify as a winner. He never loses a game … he hasn't lost a game for them. That's what you want from your quarterback, to use him and get the ball around to your playmakers and
then when you have to, make a play and move the chains. And that's what he does. I understand that he's a very bright young man and he carries it over to the football field."
Finally, after trying to make the Buckeyes one dimensional, they will seek to stop the pass.
How it will play out…
Wisconsin will start the game and end the game bringing heat on the quarterback if at all possible. They probably will try to employ a 4-3 defense with just the defensive lineman rushing the passer with possibly one or two additional blitzers early on in the game. With a solid defensive line that has two 300 lb. anchors in the middle, they can be expected to try to jam up the line of scrimmage and allow their linebackers to clean up any plays that stretch horizontally. If the line is unable to get a push and penetrate to stop the running game of Ohio State, then putting eight and even nine men in the box is not something that will give Barry Alvarez a moment's pause, especially with cornerback Scott Starks and safety Jim Leonhard in the secondary to stop possible big plays.
If Wisconsin stops the Ohio State run dead in its tracks while being able to control the line of scrimmage on the other side of the football, then look out, because the Buckeyes could be in for a long evening. If, however, the Ohio State offensive line provides the holes for the running backs and the time for Craig Krenzel to throw, then it will be the Badgers in for a long evening.
Either way, this should be an outstanding football game to watch and an excellent test for both of these teams.
What will happen…
The Ohio State offense will be at its highest level since the Fiesta Bowl. The return of a potential All-American to the offensive line along with the starting fullback, should pay dividends not only in the rushing game but also in pass protection. The Buckeyes will play it fairly close to the vest but will try to go up top to beat Wisconsin deep at least twice in this football game. I do not see a blowout. I think ultimately the Buckeyes will once again struggle to score points, but they still win the game late in the second half on Mike Nugent's and B.J. Sander's legs.
Ohio State 23 – Wisconsin 21