Here's what we have as the Buckeyes and Badgers prepare to collide at 3:30 p.m. (ABC):
1. Can the Buckeyes bounce back from last week's crushing defeat at Northwestern? This is a biggie. That was a deflating loss in Evanston and the team did not make it home until 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning. That kind of road trip can screw up your whole week, although these are resilient 18- to 22-year-old kids. Psychologically and energy-wise, OSU needs to show it is ready to go. The Buckeyes can not afford a hangover that would allow UW to jump out to, say, a quick 10-0 lead – especially in a game where points may be at a premium.
2. Are the Buckeyes tough enough to hang with the all-too-physical Badgers? Where Ohio State has had serious questions on both lines, Wisconsin's defensive line may be the Big Ten's best and the UW offensive line is also a veteran group. OSU must take the pounding and dish it back out if it expects to win this game.
3. Can the Buckeyes (finally) establish the run? It was apparent from the first series at Northwestern that OSU was not any better with the running game, despite the two-week layoff. Factor out Justin Zwick' 28 net yards on 11 carries and you see that the OSU running backs accumulated just 69 yards on 26 rushing attempts. (Egads.) Tony Pittman showed some spark at times, but it's doubtful that Jim Tressel will want to throw him to the wolves against Wisconsin's top-rated defense. Branden Joe was still hobbling a bit last week. He would mean the world as a blocking back, occasional tailback and short-yardage back. And as for Lydell Ross … let's just say it's now or never.
4. How will Zwick fare against this defense? Wisconsin feasts on pressuring opposing quarterbacks and collecting their mistakes. Zwick's baptism as a starter has been rough. Think back to Bobby Hoying in 1993 and Joe Germaine in 1996. Hoying spent his time handing off to Raymont Harris. Germaine split time with Stanley Jackson. Zwick grew up a lot in the fourth quarter last Saturday at Northwestern. But it would not be Tressel's plan to ask the sophomore to try and win games at this early stage in his career. But if the running game can't come through …
5. Can some new play makers emerge? We've seen what Santonio Holmes and, to an extent, Bam Childress can do. Ryan Hamby (four catches in the opener and three combined in the three games since) has been all but written out of the offense. It's time to get him back involved and find ways for Roy Hall (nice 50-yard grab last week) and Ted Ginn Jr. (great block on Holmes' punt return) to make some plays as well.
6. Can the defense contain Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis? This is, perhaps, the biggest factor in the game. UW has proven it can run the ball and play defense. The onus is on the OSU defense to contain Davis and keep the Buckeyes in the game until the offense can string together two or three first downs on the same possession.
7. Can the defensive line get off blocks and pressure UW quarterback John Stocco? In five games, Stocco has been sacked three times. That says a lot. Like Zwick, UW does not want the game resting in his hands. If it comes down to that, OSU must get after Stocco. Considering the fact the Buckeyes are still looking for NU's Brett Basanez, well, it makes you wonder.
8. Can Mike Nugent return to the hero role? Nobody has really faulted Nugent for what happened last week despite the fact he missed a 40-yard field goal in overtime. After all, most would say the game should never have come down to that. And, even with that miss, Nugent is 10 of 12 on field goals this year. But it seems the only way Ohio State can win a game is if Nugent delivers in a big way (either with multiple field goals or with one really big one at the end). Ohio Stadium shook when he made his 55-yarder to beat Marshall. I shudder to think what might happen if he can pull off a similar move to win a critical Big Ten game.
9. Is Wisconsin for real? Yes, the Badgers are 5-0. But none of their five opponents (Central Florida, UNLV, Arizona, Penn State and Illinois) have a winning record. We'll see if UW's unit rankings are deserved or just a function of who the Badgers have played.
As Earle Bruce said during Senior Tackle in 1996 (I know, it's not much of an omen), "Don't make them bigger than they are!"
10. Is Ohio State a legitimate Big Ten championship contender? There is no tomorrow. Yes, we think the Big Ten powers will knock each other off. But it's rare for a Big Ten champion to have two losses. Moreover, the guts of this Ohio State team – the vaunted 2002 recruiting class – was brought here to win titles. A loss in this game would take that possibility out of play, most likely, for the second year in a row.
Regardless of what happens, enjoy the game! We'll see you on the other side.