Know Your Foe - No.6 Ohio State

Back in the Big Ten title game after a one year absence, No.11 Wisconsin looks to win its third Big Ten championship game in four years against a sixth-ranked Ohio State team that fell short in the game last year. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Buckeye Sports Bulletin beat writer Jeff Svoboda.

1, Getting the obvious question out of the way, how devastating is J.T. Barrett’s injury to the offense?

Svoboda: Well, it’s not good. It is true that Cardale Jones was ahead of J.T. Barrett for much of the offseason, and Jones brings a lot of skill to the table. But Barrett matured into a dependable, almost-veteran presence despite his relative youth. He had taken basically every important snap for 11 games and three quarters before his injury, so Jones is going to be in a completely different spot. It’s not like OSU is going to be totally hopeless – there’s an offensive line that has become dependable, the best stable of wideouts under Meyer and an excellent back in Ezekiel Elliott – but a QB starting his first game is just not the ideal spot for OSU to be in.

2, What advantages does third-string quarterback Cardale Jones have and what kind of offense do you expect to see with him under center?

Svoboda: Jones has some obvious strengths. He’s huge, first of all, at 250 pounds, so he’s hard to tackle. He has very long legs, which makes him a long strider who can chew up a lot of yards very quickly, and he’s not afraid to sky over defenders, either. He has an absolute cannon for an arm, and he throws an excellent deep ball. He’s just not as adept at going through his progressions as Barrett, and he’s not quite as accurate, either. With that in mind, I don’t expect a whole lot of intermediate passes over the middle into a zone. They’ll likely stick with a run-heavy style putting the onus on Elliott and the offensive line, with Jones throwing a lot of screens, rollout passes and deep balls if Wisconsin tries to crowd the box and leaves single coverage out wide. I would also expect Jalin Marshall, a talented receiver/running back hybrid, to take about 10-20 wildcat snaps and he might even throw out of it like he did once vs. Illinois.

3, How would you define Ezekiel Elliott’s running style, and how he has done most of his damage this season?

Svoboda: Elliott (pictured) is a nice combo back. He’s not the fastest, not the biggest and not the strongest, but he’s pretty good in all areas and is an excellent blocker to boot. He’s improved quite a bit throughout the season as far as running with a purpose, as he maximizes each run these days and is showing excellent vision as he gets more and more carries. He’ll run quite a bit on read plays between the tackles but they’re not afraid to swing it to him out of the backfield, though Marshall is more the team’s top choice to attack the edge.

4, What has the addition of former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash done to boost Ohio State’s defense this season?

Svoboda: Ash was brought in to revamp OSU’s pass defense and has done an excellent job with that, improving OSU from 110th in the nation last season in passing yards allowed per game to a squad that is among the best in the country. Last year, there was no communication and obvious scheme issues in the back end, one reason Jared Abbrederis was able to become the first opposing receiver to ever catch 200 yards worth of passes vs. OSU a season ago. Those breakdowns don’t happen nearly as much as they used to.

5, Defensive end Joey Bosa is the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year. How have teams tried to neutralize him and what has made him so successful?

Svoboda: Michigan State does quite a bit of passing in max protect (keeping a back and tight end in) so often OSU was rushing four against seven vs. the Spartans, and that meant it was pretty easy for them to double-team Bosa or have a back chip him. That game was the only in the last 19 in which Bosa didn’t have a tackle for loss, though that opened a few things up for Michael Bennett to have a huge game. Honestly, if you leave Bosa with just one blocker, it’s going to be tough for that guy. He can be quiet all game and then suddenly whip out two spectacular plays that change a game. He’s a great combination of strength, speed and size, and he has a very good motor. Bosa doesn’t have very many weaknesses, one reason he’s half a sack away from setting the school single-season record, which is currently 14.

6, Entering this weekend, what is really clicking for Ohio State and what things have Buckeyes fans concerned?

Svoboda: We’ll start with the No. 1 concern, and it’s an obvious one – the run defense. The Buckeyes gave up 228 yards to Tevin Coleman vs. Indiana – the most rushing yards by an opponent in nearly two decades – and allowed both Jeremy Langford and David Cobb to top 130. Michigan State, Minnesota and Michigan were content to use a lot of heavy sets and pulling linemen to really give OSU fits at the point of attack, while Indiana was largely kept in check until Coleman hit two long plays in the second half. The problem, of course, is that Wisconsin is big and Gordon can break the long one, so that’s a major concern for OSU. I’d say the offense is clicking but you never know what will happen with Jones, though the run game should be pretty consistent for the Buckeyes as well. This is also a very resilient team so don’t expect a few things going wrong to sink the Buckeyes.

7, How do you think the Buckeyes will approach trying to stop Melvin Gordon with their personnel, and do you see it working?

Svoboda: Given what I said above, I don’t think a ton of OSU fans or observers are very confident in the Buckeyes’ chances here. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has mentioned trying to shake up the defensive scheme a little bit to make it a little less predictable, but the honest answer is that OSU’s personnel has issues. There isn’t much depth on the defensive line, so those guys can tire, and the linebackers are good but not great and can blocked at the second level. After that, the safeties – especially Tyvis Powell – have missed some tackles in recent weeks. OSU might have to really get aggressive with its safeties in an effort to stop Gordon before he gets started while trusting its corners (who have been very, very good) in coverage against run formations.

8, In your opinion, can Ohio State squeak out a win Saturday and still make the College Football Playoffs, or do they need to blow out Wisconsin?

Svoboda: I think any win is a good win for Ohio State. I’ve viewed this whole thing like the NCAA basketball tournament – survive and advance. OSU is fifth in the rankings with only Baylor really nipping at its heels, so it’s not like there’s a huge list of contenders people view as ready to jump into the top four ahead of Ohio State should Alabama, Oregon, Florida State or TCU lose. But we shall see. Jones showing the offense can at least move will be the one thing the committee is really watching.

9, Where do you think the Buckeyes have the edge over the Badgers? Where does Wisconsin have an advantage in this game?

Svoboda: I think Ohio State has a talent edge. Recruiting stars aren’t everything but they do matter, and there’s a lot more stars lining up in scarlet and gray than cardinal and white. So if Ohio State’s offense can make this into an open-field type game, that helps OSU. Wisconsin’s advantage, its run game, is obvious, but as I alluded to earlier, I think this Buckeye team has a good mind-set, self-belief and the resiliency to handle this challenge.

10, What is the one thing Ohio State needs to do well in order to win Saturday? Prediction?

Svoboda: It has to execute on offense. Some of the things Barrett did that open up the offense just won’t be available, so Ohio State is going to have to make plays when they present themselves because there will be only so many opportunities. I’ve watched enough football to know that the smaller the margin of error, the more you need to take advantage of your opportunities, and I think OSU’s margin for error dropped a bit when Barrett went on. But if OSU executes, that will be a plus. The Buckeyes also have to tackle Gordon, which obviously is easier said than done. What I mean by that is that OSU can’t miss open field tackles in the run game. Sometimes, the D-line and linebackers will get blocked up in football; that safety will have to make the play there, not miss as has happened a few times in recent week.

All in all, I feel this game is kind of a toss-up, but my gut says Wisconsin gets the win. I think Ohio State’s offense will be good, but can it get to its 44.1-point average? It seems unlikely with a first-time starter. Meanwhile, it will be really hard to keep Gordon and the UW run game under wraps for four quarters. I think it’ll be a great game but Wisconsin can score more in the end, maybe somewhat similar to last year’s game Michigan State won in Indianapolis.

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