"Each game has been a little bit different, but the common denominator in all of them is we weren't able to hold together what we needed to for 60 minutes," UW Coach Bret Bielema said. "It's 60 minutes of reactions to what happened and we have to handle it better, longer than we have in the past."
When No.1 Ohio State plays its second consecutive night game at Camp Randall against No.18 Wisconsin at 6 p.m. Saturday, it will present another opportunity for the Badgers to finally get over the hump after three painfully close losses.
The last three games against the Buckeyes have yielded more questions than answers for the Badgers, but have shown them that they can compete annually against a team usually ranked in the top 15. That is, when Wisconsin doesn't make mistakes.
In 2007, the last time UW faced a number one team, Wisconsin took a third quarter lead until its defense allowed four touchdowns in the final 18 minutes (three from running back Chris ‘Benie' Wells) and had two costly fumbles inside its own 25.
With UW leading by four in the final minutes under the lights in 2008, Ohio State and then freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor shook off the raucous Madison atmosphere by directed a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes, capping that drive with an 11-yard run when UW's defense was out of position to earn his team a 20-17 victory.
A year ago, Wisconsin statistically dominated Ohio State in first downs (22 to 8), in passing yards (250 to 87), in total offense (368 to 184) and in time of possession (42:47 to 17:13), but two Scott Tolzien interceptions were returned for a touchdown and OSU returned a 96-yard kickoff for a score, leading to a 31-13 victory and more frustrations on UW's sideline.
"They've all been close games, hard-fought battles, and we haven't finished and they have," Tolzien said. "Right now, they have the bragging rights. We just have to continue on with a great week of preparation and just play our best football on Saturday."
Wisconsin (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will need to play its best Saturday if it wants a chance to upset the Buckeyes, seeing as Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) produces a handful of problems that need to be addressed. The obvious is junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who is a perfect 2-0 against the Badgers despite completing only 56.3 percent of his passes, registering only 286 total yards and throwing more interceptions (two) than touchdowns (one) in those games.
In six games this season, Pryor has lived up to his potential, completing 68 percent of his passes for an average of 224.8 yards per game with 15 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Last week, Pryor shared Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors with UW's John Clay after setting career highs in completions (24) and yards (334) in a 28-point win over Indiana.
While people say his 2010 Rose Bowl victory over Oregon was his emergence as a leader, his 11-yard scramble two years ago at Wisconsin started his confidence as a quarterback.
"I think (that first UW game is where) it started," said Pryor, who is leading a OSU team that leads the Big Ten in points per game at 43.2. "Anytime you get that win it's huge, whether it was me or somebody else."
But while Pryor is the face of the Buckeyes, the calling card is their defense, which has helped lead them to five straight league titles since 2005. After consistently finishing in the top three in total and scoring defense during that time frame, the Buckeyes are on their way again, ranking first in the league in total defense (237 yards allowed per game) and second in scoring defense (13.5 allowed per game).
"This defense is a lot faster and they use their hands a lot more (then who we've faced)," senior tight end Lance Kendricks said. "They are more hands out, so you've got to play more technical and understand your assignments. Playing in the Big Ten, you've got to have a short memory and come back to play harder on the next play."
There's little doubt that Ohio State has become the face of the conference. Since 2006, the Buckeyes are 15-2 at home and 16-1 on the road in Big Ten play (Wisconsin, in comparison, is 14-3 at home and 7-10 on the road). The x-factor could be that Wisconsin is 25-3 in its last 28 games under the lights.
"It was ridiculous," said OSU senior linebacker Brian Rolle to reporters, remembering Ohio State's last visit in 2008. "It was at night as well, and the student section I think is one of the best in the nation as far as making noise. They're in the game the whole time. We know how it's going to be."
Critics point out that by the middle of October, the Buckeyes have played exactly one game away from their home stadium and haven't played anyone currently ranked in the AP Top 25 (Miami was 12th at the time they lost in Columbus, but have dropped off the radar). Critics point to Bielema that despite is 43-15 overall record, he is 1-8 against ranked conference teams (only beating No.14 Michigan in '07) and is 0-3 against Ohio State.
Needless to say, both schools have something to prove, but the University of Wisconsin has a lot to prove.
"To go against an opponent at a level that Ohio State has been able to uphold for so long is going to be a nice measuring stick," Bielema said. "I think our guys will have that in the back of their minds and move forward. Hopefully, everybody will be at a position to be at their best on Saturday."
No.1/1 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) vs. No.18/16 Wisconsin (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, October 16 at 6 p.m. CT
Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/Field Turf)
Television - ESPN (Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit, Erin Andrews)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas) and Satellite Sirus (ch. 90) and XM (ch. 196)
Series – Ohio State leads 53-17-5 (OSU leads 25-10-2 in Madison)
Last Meeting – Ohio State won, 31-13, on Oct. 10, 2009 in Columbus
In the last nine meetings, OSU holds a slim 5-4 lead.
The last three games in Madison have been decided by a total of 15 points.
This will be the sixth time in the last 12 meetings that both teams are ranked heading into the game.
UW has faced Ohio State seven times when the Buckeyes have been ranked No. 1 in the country (only two have been in Madison). The Badgers' only win in that situation was a 17-7 victory on Oct. 31, 1942 at Camp Randall Stadium.
For just the ninth time in history and the first time since 1997, Wisconsin will host the No. 1 team in the country. The Badgers are 3-5 all-time against No. 1 teams at Camp Randall Stadium. Their last win over a No. 1 team was a 21-14 victory over Michigan on Sept. 12, 1981 in Madison.
Wisconsin has committed just 20 penalties, tied for the fewest in the country. The Badgers' 30.8 penalty yards per game are fourth-fewest in the country.
Wisconsin has scored a touchdown on its first drive of the game in four of its six games this season. Its four game-opening TD drives have traveled 80, 77, 69 and 68 yards. The Badgers have also scored on their opening drive of the second half in five of its six games, including touchdowns in each of the last three games.
The Badgers' touchdown percentage inside the red zone is .787 (26-of-33), sixth-best in the country. Last year, UW set a school record by scoring touchdowns on 75.0 percent of its red zone trips.
Wisconsin's opponents have scored just one rushing touchdown this season. Iowa (0), West Virginia (1) and Colorado (1) are the only other teams in the country to have allowed less than two rushing TDs this season. Dating back to last year, UW has allowed just five rushing TDs in the last 16 games.
Ohio State Notes:
Ohio State is riding a 12-game win streak dating to last season, the second-longest among FBS teams behind Boise State (19)
Ohio State is 132-104-12 all-time when facing a ranked opponent, and 41-41-7 on the road against ranked teams. Under Coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes are 38-13 overall and 13-6 on the road against ranked teams. Ohio State has won its last eight Big Ten road games against AP Top 25 opponents.
Over the last 11 games dating to last season, the Buckeyes have outgained the opposition on the ground by +1,737 yards (2,592 to 855) – an average of +157.9 yards per game. Ohio State has averaged 235.6 yards per game during that span to the opponent's 77.7 and has totaled 25 rushing touchdowns to the opposition's four.
In the 38-10 victory over Indiana, Jim Tressel (100-21 at Ohio State) became the third-fastest coach to win 100 games at a Big Ten school behind Michigan's Fielding Yost and Bo Schembechler, who each did it in 119 games. Tressel is the fastest to win 100 games at Ohio State ahead of John Cooper (138) and Woody Hayes (144).
This game has been circled on the calendars of Badger Nation since UW's charter plane took off from Columbus. It's hard to tell if the Buckeyes feel the same way, especially since the Badgers have been a play here or a play there from a lot more wins in the last decade of the series.
Scott Tolzien is efficient enough to compete against the Buckeyes, completing 69.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Tolzien hasn't thrown an interception since the third quarter in week 2, resulting in 70 consecutive passes and four games without an interception or turnover.
Keeping that streak intact against the Buckeyes won't be easy, especially since the Buckeyes have forced 17 turnovers (11 interceptions), the No.1 mark in the Big Ten. What makes the Buckeyes unique this season is there are no recognizable performers on their defense. Nobody among the top 20 tacklers, the top sack producers or leaders in tackles for loss in the Big Ten. They also rank seventh in quarterback sacks with eight in six games. Semi mind boggling, but a credit to Jim ‘the Vest' Tressel for building such a solid unit.
The spread is 4.5 in favor of OSU. In order for Wisconsin to win, the Badgers need to play sound on special teams (it would be a first), need to be successful running the ball (haven't had a 100-yard rusher in the last three games against OSU) and the defense must play sound defensively for 60 minutes (still searching for that). Ohio State will make some mistakes on the road in this environment but can Wisconsin take advantage?
The Badgers are due for a complete against the Buckeyes. They are due for a complete game, period. Doing it against the Buckeyes is a tough start. I give Wisconsin a good chance to win this game but in the end, I have to go with my gut.
Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 23
Straight up: 5-1
Against the Spread: 4-2