Saturday, Noon, Ohio Stadium
Wisconsin has been known, at least since the program hit prominence under Barry Alvarez, as a hard-rushing team that was bent on controlling the line of scrimmage and running the ball down the throat of the opposition.
That hasn't changed much under Bret Bielema. The former Iowa player and Alvarez assistant is in just his second season but he looks as though he is trying to follow in his boss' footsteps with sophomore P.J. Hill, who looks like the next in a line of four-year backs like Ron Dayne and Anthony Davis under Alvarez.
This season, Hill (5-11, 227) has 212 rushes for 1,066 yards and 14 touchdowns, and is averaging 118.4 yards per game, good for 15th in the country, a year after leading the conference in rushing as a freshman.
"He's an impressive back," OSU linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "He's a big guy who can run you over but at the same time has good speed and good feet."
Of course, the scuttlebutt this week is that Hill might not play because of a bruised foot suffered last week against Indiana that kept him out of the final three quarters of play.
"It was very, very sensitive and sore," Bielema said. "We're encouraged there wasn't any structural damage. It's just a bruise and it's hopefully something we can get through in a short amount of time."
In his stead, it appears that Zack Brown would get the call. The freshman, a 5-11, 198-pound change of pace back with 35 carries on the year for 118 yards and a score, is Wisconsin's third stringer normally but vaults to second string on the road because Lance Smith-Williams is suspended from road trips.
"I'm not nervous at all," Brown said. "I think I've played enough and practiced hard so I feel confident when I get in the game. I'm a freshman in school but on that field it seems like I'm a vet."
From an Ohio State perspective, the Buckeyes are expecting to see Hill in the game no matter the words coming out of Wisconsin.
"You have to go on the assumption that he's going to play," OSU cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said. "He's a competitor. You have to expect that he's going to play, without a doubt, and you have to prepare as such."
When it comes to the offensive line, which is always a Wisconsin specialty, the Badgers are stocked as usual. Four starters return, led by senior center Marcus Coleman, a Rimington Award candidate, right guard Kraig Urbik, who has started 35 games in a row, and junior right tackle Eric Vanden Heuvel. The only weak link in the chain is redshirt freshman left tackle Gabe Carimi, who is tasked with replacing first-round draft pick Joe Thomas.
"They have big, huge offensive linemen," Freeman said of the group where three projected starters tip the scales over 320 pounds. "They're impressive football players who are going to try to get after you."
Donovan Jekyll And Mr. Hyde: It's almost as though there have been two Tyler Donovans this season, one who plays during Big Ten games and one who does not. The senior quarterback for the Badgers, who is 9-2 in his career as a starter, has not had a bad year on the whole, completing 142 of 240 passes (59.2 percent) for 1,855 yards, 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
However, in his last three games Donovan has just one touchdown passes and four picks. In five Big Ten games, Donovan has tossed five touchdown passes and eight interceptions, compared to seven scores and just one pick in nonconference games.
Still, the senior is impressive on film, especially for his intangibles, said Johnson.
"I tell you what, he's really matured," Johnson said. "I think he feels a lot more comfortable at quarterback. He is their leader. You can tell breaking the huddle and things like that, that guys really feed off of his energy."
He is also a threat to run when necessary, as the Hartland, Wis., native has 188 yards and two rushing scores on the season.
His favorite weapon is tight end Travis Beckum. Calling Beckum a tight end is a bit of a misnomer. The 6-4, 224-pound junior, a second-team All-Big Ten choice a year ago, has the size and athleticism of a wide receiver and the numbers to back it up; on the year, Beckum has 53 catches for 625 yards and three touchdowns. Last year he finished with 61 grabs and five touchdowns.
Defense Mechanisms: Things were not good for Wisconsin through seven games because six of seven opponents had topped 300 yards of total offense. In back-to-back-to-back games from Sept. 29 through Oct. 13 against Michigan State, Illinois and Penn State, the Badgers gave up an average of 470.3 yards and 35.3 points. Not surprisingly, they picked up a 1-2 record over that trio of games.
But something has changed during the past two weeks. Against Northern Illinois Oct. 20, the Badgers held the Huskies to just 99 yards. A week later, a potent Indiana offense could do nothing against UW, piling up just 258 yards and three points.
"There's two things that are evident when you watch film of Saturday's game was that they're playing great, they're playing aggressive," Bielema said. "They're playing to attack the football, and they're basically playing at a higher pace just speed all over the field because of it. They just get to the ball a lot faster."
A lot of the charge has been led by a very good, athletic group of linebackers. Leading the way on the stat sheet is the "Will" linebacker, agile junior Jonathon Casillas, who has 69 tackles on the season a year after a season that earned him Big Ten honorable mention status. The player who might be the leader when it comes to motivating his team is the strongside linebacker, junior DeAndre Levy, who has 50 tackles, seven TFL and three sacks on the season. In the middle is Elijah Hodge, the brother of former Iowa linebacker Abdul Hodge, who has matched Levy with 50 tackles.
That trio has left OSU fullback Dionte Johnson saying he'll be watching more film this week than in the past.
"They're fast," he said. "They flow. They're a fast team. We know their linebackers are really athletic and like to get after it."
Ends To A Means: Ohio State tight end Rory Nicol is used to having to face a good Wisconsin end, going back to 2004 when he was charged with helping block Erasmus James as a freshman. James was an All-American that year. UW's ends won't finish with that type of accolade, but they still have a good trio.
Both starting ends are juniors. On the left side is Mike Newkirk, a first-year starter who has stepped up to make 25 tackles, 3.5 for loss. Across the way is rush end Matt Shaughnessy, who has 37 tackles, 10 stops for loss and 3.5 sacks, which is good for a three-way tie for the team lead. Shaughnessy was second-team All-Big Ten choice last season. Redshirt freshman Kirk DeCremer, Shaughnessy's backup, also has 3½ sacks.
"They have some good guys up front," Nicol said. "I think Wisconsin generally always has pretty special defensive ends. I remember playing against Erasmus and those guys in '04. They're a solid defense."
Hitting The History Books: There's been no love lost between the two schools in recent seasons, there's no doubt. While the two universities have split the last 11 games, going 5-5-1, there have been moments of conflict.
In 1999, after a 42-17 Badger win in Ohio Stadium, the UW players danced on the block "O" in Ohio Stadium. Ohio State returned the favor in 2000 in Camp Randall Stadium with a dance on the motion "W" logo, and Wisconsin did it again after a 2004 win. Factor in the Robert Reynolds/Jim Sorgi incident in 2003 and it's been an interesting past couple years in the series.
But when it comes down to it, what might frost the Buckeyes the most is Wisconsin's three-game winning streak in Ohio Stadium, which includes the '99 and '04 wins as well as a win in 2001. After that '01 win, UW quarterback Brooks Bollinger signed a picture with the message "The Horseshoe. They built it. WE OWN IT," adding yet another layer to the drama.
"They've kind of had our number, and now the question is, ‘Can you answer the bell?' " Nicol said. "I think it's an opportunity for us to go out there and prove that we can."