Five Questions: Ohio State-Wisconsin

The Badgers have a back who is ailing, but stopping their running game will be a priority for the Buckeyes anyway. We examine that, P.J. Hill's possible replacements, the task Wisconsin faces in stopping the Buckeyes' rolling offense and a trio of other topics in this week's Five Questions.

1. How healthy will P.J. Hill be?

Reports this week out of Madison are that the Badgers' 1,000-yard tailback is suffering from a leg injury more serious than first thought, and his status is iffy at best for Wisconsin's trip to Columbus this weekend.

If the 5-11, 227-pound sophomore does play, it will almost certainly be in pain, and his effectiveness figures to be limited.

"When you see P.J. Hill on film, he's a huge running back, but I think the most impressive thing about him is he has great feet," OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "He's able to not only run you over but juke you and make you miss."

Carrying that weight on a bad wheel doesn't figure to be an easy job, especially in a zone-blocking offense that is at its best with a running back making quick, decisive cuts.

If he can go, Hill will be opposing an Ohio State front seven that might feel like it has something to prove after giving up some big runs to Penn State. The Nittany Lions picked up 139 yards on the ground and – more disconcerting – averaged more than six yards per carry.

2. What will the Badgers do if Hill cannot go?

No single player is likely to take over for Hill should he miss the game Saturday, although with their zone-blocking scheme the Badgers might be better able to absorb the loss of a top-line runner than other squads.

As most probably know by now, his backup is Lance Smith-Williams, a shifty native of Warren, Ohio, barred from traveling with the team as punishment for an offseason incident. Behind those two is a pair of freshman: 5-11, 198-pound Zach Brown and 6-0, 209-pound Quincy Landingham.

Brown ran 14 times for 40 yards and a touchdown last week against Indiana. In by far his most action this season, he flashed the tools needed to be an effective runner, though.

Speaking with reporters on Monday, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said the staff is excited about Brown not just for his physical skills but because he brings a willingness to learn and get better.

Landingham, meanwhile, began the season as a defensive back and has played in just three games. He will enter Ohio Stadium with three collegiate carries and 16 yards to his name.

Leading the way for whomever is running the ball is 6-1, 259-pound fullback Chris Pressley, a fine blocker who has eight carries on the year.

Finally, it will be worth it to keep an eye also on quarterback Tyler Donovan. He is a tough runner for a QB, in the mold of Craig Krenzel. He can make things happen both on scrambles and in called keepers.

3. How will Ohio State try to control Travis Beckum?

With Hill less than 100 percent, there is no doubt the Badgers' tight end is their most dangerous weapon.

In a year the Big Ten is full of outstanding tight ends, Beckum is the best.

He has more than twice as many catches as any other Badger and his 69.4 yards per game rank seventh in the Big Ten among all players (no other tight ends appear in the top 10).

At 6-4, 224 and with good speed, Beckum is a matchup problem for most teams, leaving little doubt as to why Tressel paused and raised his eyebrows before launching into praise for the Badger, who wears No. 9.

"They find many, many ways to get Travis Beckum the ball, and he's kind of a wide receiver in a tight end's body," Tressel said. "They'll put him out wide and run streaks. They'll bring him inside and run inside routes. You better know where Number 9 is as you prepare for Wisconsin."

4. Will the OSU offense stay on a roll?

The Ohio State offense is coming off back-to-back weeks with 200-or-more yards rushing, and in five conference games the Buckeyes have not been held below 181 yards on the ground.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, enters the game eighth in the Big Ten in rushing defense during conference play. The Badgers were great against Iowa (59 yards) but Michigan State (241 yards), Illinois (289) and Penn State (221) all gashed the Badgers, who last week gave up 145 yards on the ground to a below-average rushing unit from Indiana.

But the Badgers can't pay extra attention to the Buckeye running game because Ohio State has been almost perfectly balanced offensively in conference play (212 yards passing, 210 rushing per game).

Bielema told reporters Monday Ohio State's offense thrives on its athleticism – including along the offensive line – and the decisions quarterback Todd Boeckman is making.

"You know, you have a guard (Steve Rehring) that weighs 345 pounds and runs very, very well," Bielema said. "It was interesting, when I was doing my TV show on Sunday, we were watching a celebration in the end zone where you saw their left tackle (Alex Boone) basically jump over the head of a wide receiver while he (Brian Hartline) was standing straight up. Our guys can't do that. "So I mean, they're very, very physical and very talented… And obviously, it all starts with the quarterback and the way he's playing. It speaks volumes about their offense and what they're able to do." The Badgers, by the way, are coming off back-to-back outstanding defensive efforts.

5. Can the Buckeyes finally make some progress in the kickoff department?

If there is anything the Buckeyes do not do well, it is return kicks. They are last in the Big Ten in that area, averaging just 14.6 yards per return.

Of course, Ohio State hasn't had much trouble producing points, so the attention has gone to the other side of the kickoff equation.

The Buckeye defense has been stingy all year, but a pair of touchdowns on kickoff returns has dragged down the team's scoring defense.

Ohio State is fifth in net kicking average.

The Badgers have not exactly excelled in the return game – they rank eighth in the conference – but only Illinois has averaged a better net kicking average.

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