Game Preview: Wisconsin

No. 14 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by traveling to Camp Randall Stadium to face Wisconsin Saturday night. previews the game with notes on the Badgers' home-field advantage, key players to watch and a breakdown of the Golden Gophers' offensive and defensive units.

No. 18 Wisconsin (3-1, 0-1)
Saturday, Oct. 4, 8:00 p.m.
Camp Randall Stadium (80,321)
TV: ABC Regional
2007 Record: 9-4, 5-3 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Bret Bielema, 24-6 at Wisconsin (third season)

Much has been made about Wisconsin's total collapse last week at Michigan that saw its 19-0 lead over previously punchless Michigan evaporate into a 27-25 loss.

But if there's one saving grace for the Badgers, it's that they get to return home to Camp Randall Stadium, one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten.

The Badgers have won 16 consecutive games at home, providing for the second-longest home winning streak in school history. The team's average winning margin during those home games has been 21.3 points per game. Wisconsin is 27-1 at Camp Randall since Bielema joined the staff as the defensive coordinator before the 2004 season and 16-0 in the stadium with Bielema as the head coach.

That dominance extends to night games as well. Wisconsin has won 21 of its last 22 night games, including the last six they have played in Camp Randall Stadium, the fourth-oldest on-campus Division I-A stadium in use. The school's last home night game loss came to Colorado in 1995. It wouldn't be hard to expect the Badger crowd to be fully riled up by the time the 7 p.m. kickoff local time arrives.

Then there's "Jump Around," the tradition in which the stadium's student section obeys the House of Pain song's title exhortation.

It all adds up to a tough place to play for visitors – and an atmosphere that could be the spring back in Wisconsin's step should they be down after the loss to the Wolverines.

"You want to strike first and try to keep the crowd as much out of it as you can," Ohio State lineman Jim Cordle said. "We did a good job of that against Penn State last year against what I've heard is a similar audience. That will help us a lot if we can get out and keep things going."

No current Buckeye player has played in "The Madhouse in Madison," as Ohio State's last trip came in 2003, a game that snapped the Buckeyes' regular-season winning streak when No. 23 Wisconsin used a late touchdown pass to earn a 17-10 victory over the third-ranked Buckeyes.

As a result the OSU coaching staff has tried to prepare the players for what the game will be like, including showing them a video of the "Jump Around" segment. During practice, the team has been practicing with noise piped in.

"It's something that we do all the time, whether it was last year getting ready for the Big House or Beaver Stadium or whatever it happens to be," head coach Jim Tressel said. "Every Thursday, we practice with noise, understanding that if we're playing at home even, we're probably not going to be able to hear and that the focus is going to have to stronger, the visual signals, the wristband type things. You're going to have to utilize things other than sound."

Ohio State's players, as a result, seem to know the situation which they are about to enter.

"I've heard the fans are even physical, not just the players," Cordle said. "(They throw) pennies in marshmallows and batteries. … They'll be very, I guess you could call them violent."

Series Top OSU Performers
Offensively, the star of last year's game was Chris Wells. The sophomore tailback broke the game open during the second half by running for touchdowns of 31, 30 and 23 yards on the way to finishing his day with 169 yards on 21 carries. Todd Boeckman completed 17 of 28 passes for 166 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions while running for 27 yards on seven carries. Brian Hartline caught seven passes for 95 yards, but Brian Robiskie had touchdown catches of 30 and 8 yards.

Defensively Ohio State was led by James Laurinaitis, who had a huge day. The junior finished with 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and a sack. Anderson Russell was next on the stop chart with eight. The Buckeyes finished with 10 sacks, including those by returning players Doug Worthington, Nader Abdallah, Thaddeus Gibson and Todd Denlinger.

Badger Players To Know
RB P.J. Hill: Hill burst onto the scene in 2006 when he was the league's freshman of the year after rushing for 1,569 yards, good for seventh on the NCAA Division I all-time freshman rushing list, and 15 touchdowns. Hill followed that up in 2007 with an injury-plagued year in which he still ran the ball 233 times for 1,236 yards and 14 touchdowns, though he didn't suit up against Ohio State.

Hill said during the preseason that he took part in every phase of offseason training for the first time in his career and showed up at a more chiseled 236 pounds than he had been in the past. So far, that's worked for him, as he sits tied for 14th in the nation in yards per game. He has 449 yards on 92 carries for four scores.

"You have to wrap up," Ohio State's Taver Johnson said about bringing down the 5-11 back. "Being a big that that he is, he's very, very quick. He has really good vision inside. He's not a guy who's going to take it 100 yards – hopefully not, anyway – but he's going to make guys miss between the tackles and then hit a seam full speed."

TE Travis Beckum: The 6-4, 235-pounder entered the season billed as one of the top tight ends in the country after outstanding sophomore and junior seasons that saw him first become a semifinalist for the Mackey Award given to the nation's top tight end and then a finalist last year. In 2006, Beckum caught 61 passes for 903 yards and five touchdowns, then he had 75 grabs for 982 yards and six scores a year ago, including nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown last year against Ohio State. That total gave him the most receiving yards for any Buckeye opponent last year, and Johnson compared him Wednesday to Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow.

However, 2008 has not gone the way Beckum had hoped. He missed the first two games with a hamstring injury suffered in camp, then returned with four catches for 51 yards against Fresno State. During the Badgers' ensuing bye week, he again tweaked the hamstring, leaving him ready only for spot duty against Michigan, a game in which he caught two passes for 17 yards.

Badger coaches say he'll be ready to go, though, against the Buckeyes, and if he's healthy he presents a challenge for the Buckeye defense.

"He is probably the most unique player we'll see all year," safety Anderson Russell said. "(Because of) the fact that he lines up at tight end receiver and he makes plays from both spots. He also is a great blocker, too."

LB DeAndre Levy: The third-year starter has become the heart and soul of the Wisconsin defense at strong-side linebacker. A senior captain, Levy has taken on a leadership role on the team, and he's backed it up with strong play.

"Toward the second half of the season, I saw it was something on my shoulders, whether I wanted it to be or not," he said of his role. "I've been around awhile, played a lot of games. People expect me to step to the forefront. That's something I tried to do."

Through four games, Levy has 23 tackles, five stops for loss, a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery. His best game was against Fresno State when he was named the national defensive player of the week by numerous outlets after making nine tackles, four for loss, as well as a sack and interception.

FS Shane Carter: Carter can make big plays happen on the football field, but the only question is which side will benefit from those plays. He's shown a nose for the football with seven interceptions, one off the national lead, last year and two more this year. However, coaches were less than pleased with his reads and tackling last year and seemed to be more encouraged by his play during the spring and fall camp. So far this year, he has 11 tackles.

He was praised by Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema for his "awesome" tackling against Akron, but he was burned by Michigan's Brandon Minor on a touchdown run during the Wolverines' come-from-behind win last Saturday.

Game Breakdown When Ohio State has the ball: Offensive linemen like to say that games come down to their play in the trenches, but that might be truer than usual this week. Ohio State, coming off of a 279-yard rushing performance against Minnesota, will be going against a quick, strong Wisconsin front line and experienced linebackers.

Of the players the Badgers expect to start in their front seven, five are seniors and two are seniors.

"Their strength is their front seven and their front line," Cordle said. "Their D-tackles don't weigh in as much as some of the guys that we play or will play, but they're just as anybody that we'll play. Last year, Jason Chapman, one of their defensive tackles, got hurt and they moved Mike Newkirk, who was an end, to tackle. We were thinking this D-end is going to play and we're going to throw him around a little bit. That wasn't the case at all. Newkirk I would say is one of the strongest players we'll ever play.

"Those guys are quick because they're light and they're very good."

Cordle does highlight the point that Wisconsin's front line, while experienced, isn't the biggest group. Chapman is the heftiest major contributor on the line at 285 pounds, while Newkirk, a senior captain, weights in at 264. Ends O'Brien Schofield and Matt Shaughnessy are just 232 and 253 pounds, respectively.

While those guys know how to play, their size might be clouding their production. Wisconsin was a middle of the pack defense a year ago, and this year, the Badgers are fourth in the conference in total defense, six in scoring defense and last in sacks. Schofield, with two sacks, is the only player with more than one.

Ohio State certainly took advantage a year ago, especially in the running game. Wells broke for his three second-half touchdowns thanks to big holes paved by the line followed by him bouncing the run outside while evading some sketchy tackling from Badger defenders.

In the back end the Badgers are young. One senior starts in cornerback Allen Langford, who is in fourth year as a starter and has six career interceptions. On the other side, the team rotates freshman Mario Goins and sophomore Niles Brinkley. Carter is at one safety spot, while sophomore Jay Valai mans the other.

Cordle said the Buckeyes need to protect up front in order to attack that Badger secondary, which gave up more than 200 yards through the air to Akron, Marshall and Fresno State.

"We've got to be able to get on them and control them and get the run game going because we think we can throw the ball down the field," Cordle said.

When Wisconsin has the ball: The presence of game-breakers like Hill and Beckum has made the Wisconsin offense the talk of interviews during the past week. Ohio State will have to be able to control those two players in order to keep successfully the Badgers' offense at bay.

Things will change depending on how healthy Beckum is. The big man has the speed and agility of an elite wide receiver but also can line up with his hand on the ground and make a block or two when called upon, though he's listed at H-back rather than tight end as the Badgers have players like Garrett Graham and Mickey Turner who bring more to the running game.

However, a personnel grouping with Beckum still provides plenty of things for the Buckeye defense to consider before every play. He provides matchup problems when he lines up at tight end just because it's impossible to get a cornerback on him at that point.

"It opens up their offense because now they can get into a bunch of different sets in terms of run formations and passing formations because now they can split him out as a receiver, and he's really good at it," Johnson said. "You're not sure if you're going to get two-tight end personnel, or is it one tight end, three wide receiver personnel? It's pretty unique and it's challenging."

The Badgers do expect to have Beckum healthy, as well as Graham, the team's leading receiver with 11 catches and three touchdowns, and sophomore wideout Maurice Moore, who has five catches.

The ability of Graham and Beckum to get open in the passing game really opens up the field, especially considering the Badgers' youth at wideout. There are no upperclassmen among the team's top receivers, and sophomore David Gilreath, a speedster, ties Graham with 11 catches for the team lead. Glenville grad Kyle Jefferson, a sophomore, has nine catches for 117 yards but still is working on using his slight 6-5 frame to be physical enough to get open.

The person in charge of getting the ball to those receivers is senior Allan Evridge, a Kansas State transfer in his first year of starting at UW. So far, Evridge has been good but not great, completing 57.7 percent of his 97 passes for four touchdowns and three interceptions. His passing efficiency rating sits fifth in the Big Ten.

"He does a great job of getting the ball to their playmakers," Russell said. "They have a couple of really tall tight ends, and from what I've seen he does a good job of putting the ball up to where they can only really catch the ball, especially going up against shorter DBs."

Russell added, though, that he thinks the complexity of the Buckeye defense could unnerve the quarterback making just his second Big Ten start.

"He probably hasn't seen a defense that does as many things as we do, so that could give him problems," he said. "We have to do a good job of not showing out coverages too early and disguising our blitzes."

This year, Ohio State gets a chance at Hill, who was unable to play a year ago with an injury. This year, the Buckeye defenders feel they know more of what to expect with the Badgers' bell cow in the game.

"I was expecting him to play last year and when he didn't, I was kind of surprised. He's a great back," Russell said. "Last year we played a lot more nickel against them than I thought we would just based off of their type of team that they were, but this year with P.J. Hill being healthy, they have a huge offensive line, so we definitely know they're going to run the ball."

Hill isn't the only back the Badgers boast. Last year in his stead, Zach Brown ran for 63 yards on 20 carries, and he's averaging 43.5 yards per game this year. Redshirt freshman John Clay, another physical back like Hill, has 47.8 yards per game on the ground as well.

The Badgers also boast a good play-action passing game, which both Johnson and Russell said increases the Buckeyes' focus on using the Badgers' pad and helmet levels to distinguish between pass and run plays.

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