What appeared unlikely after Wisconsin lost to Northwestern to begin Big Ten play, the Badgers have found themselves back in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Title game for the third time in four years. The challenge to win the program’s fourth championship in five years won’t be easy against No.6 Ohio State.While the Buckeyes (11-1, 8-0) losing starting quarterback J.T. Barrett to a fractured ankle in their win over Michigan on Saturday will certainly hurt, especially since he accounted for 45 touchdowns on the season, Ohio State has plenty of other weapons on both sides of the football that will challenge the Badgers.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would play an important role in helping the Badgers win the Big Ten title in Indianapolis against the No. 6 Buckeyes.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Even though Gordon hasn’t had any highlight runs as of late, he still has been effective rushing the football proving that he can pick up some tough yards up the middle. That may be the case again at times with Ohio State ranking fifth in rush defense, allowing 145.6 yards a game. Ohio State boast a talented defensive line as the starting unit have combined for 43 tackles for loss and 22 sacks.Gordon may have difficulty at times getting outside with Ohio State’s talented defensive line considering the Buckeye’s are only giving up four yards a carry, but Gordon has shown good patience this year and create runs on his own. Gordon longest rush a year ago against Ohio State was 16 yards and he only managed 74 yards on 15 carries. Those numbers for Gordon should change on Saturday as Ohio State hasn’t faced many teams that can rush the football as effectively as Wisconsin.
The Buckeye defense only faced two teams in the regular season that finished in the top five of rushing offense from the Big Ten in Indiana and Michigan State, which finished second and fifth respectively. In those two games the Buckeye defense gave up 182.5 yards a game, with Indiana running back Tevin Coleman running for 228 yards, three touchdowns, for an 8.4 yard rushing average.
It will be interesting to see how offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig lines Gordon up on offense, if he puts him in different spots on the field to try and trick the Ohio State defense.
2, Marcus Trotter MLB (5): Trotter continues to play solid football over the last two weeks, registering a combined 22 tackles and 2.5 TFLs. With quarterback Cardale Jones set to make his first career start, the Buckeyes will likely be a run-first team. Ohio State has had success on the ground this year, averaging 257.4 yards a game, but Barrett accounted for 78.2 of the teams 257.4 yards rushing average. Without Barrett as a rushing threat, Ohio State is averaging 179.2 yards a game, which would rank Ohio State sixth in the Big Ten in rushing average. Jones is still a threat as a dual-threat quarterback, as he has rushed for 334 yards on 43 carries (7.7 yards a carry) and one rushing touchdown in his career, but doesn’t appear to be the same kind of threat as his two predecessors.
Trotter has been able to use his instincts and football IQ to help slow down opposing rushing attacks, as the Badgers rank third in the Big Ten in rush defense (103.8 yards a game). Wisconsin has given up over 100 yards its last three games but is only allowing three yards a carry on average, which ranks second in the Big Ten.
Ezekiel Elliott leads Ohio State in rushing with 1,182 on 197 carries (six yards a carry) and 10 touchdowns. Elliot is a shifty back and he will be difficult to take down at times. Missed tackles have popped up the last few weeks, including Trotter missing one against Minnesota’s David Cobb that went for a 40-yard touchdown, but the Badgers, and Trotter, have played solid defense by trusting their instincts and winning one-on-one battles.
3, Joel Stave QB (2): Stave has been quietly getting into a rhythm over the last four games, completing over 60 percent of his passes and distributing the football to a number of his targets, both of which will have to continue Saturday. Stave will need to be aware of where the pass rush is coming from so he can get the football out of his hands quickly and be strong in the pocket to get an accurate pass off. If he doesn’t get off a good pass Ohio State could make Stave and the UW offense pay considering they’ve recorded 18 interceptions this season, best in the Big Ten. Stave will need to know where safety Vonn Bell is, as he leads Ohio State with four interceptions, not to mention Tyvis Powell and Doran Grant, who are tied for second on the team with three interceptions. If Stave can limit any possible mistakes the Wisconsin offense should be able to have success.
In order to help make sure Stave doesn’t make a mistake, Ludwig will have to get Stave into a rhythm early so he can get off to a better start on offense. To begin the game against Minnesota, Stave started 3-for-8 for 88 yards during Wisconsin’s first five possessions. It wasn’t until the sixth possession to end the first half where Stave was able to get going, connecting on two critical throws to Alex Erickson, which helped Wisconsin put three points up on the board before halftime. If Stave can connect on a couple of his early passes it should give him confidence and should help keep the Badger defense fresh.
4, Vince Biegel OLB (3): Biegel has been quiet over the last two weeks but will be counted on to make sure Jones or Elliott don’t bust any big plays on the ground. With Trotter trying to slow down the Buckeye’s run game from the interior, Biegel will be responsible for outside containment and Jones not having time to set his feet and get off a clean pass. Jones will have a week of practice taking first-team reps so it will be interesting how strong he can come out against Wisconsin and how much trust the Ohio State coaching staff has in him. With consistently harassing Jones early in the game high on the priority list, Biegel can help disrupt Jones’ confidence with a consistent pass rush and a couple well-timed hits, potentially leading to turnovers or three-and-outs.
5, Rob Havenstein RT (6): Havenstein will have a tough test in his final Big Ten matchup when he goes against Joey Bosa. The conference’s defensive player of the year and Bednarik Award finalist, Bosa leads the team in both tackles for loss (20) and sacks (13.5), meaning Havenstein will have his work cut out for him to make sure he isn’t in Wisconsin’s backfield often. Bosa has plenty of moves in his arsenal to cause disruption, but Havenstein’s frame should give him a chance to win a fair number of battles. Havenstein should be able to help spring Gordon or Corey Clement on running plays to pick up positive yard, but he will have to try to create time for Stave to get the pass off. If Stave is consistently under pressure, it will ultimately result in short possessions for Wisconsin. Winning the time of possession battle will be critical for Wisconsin to set the tempo of the game.
6, Darius Hillary CB (7): Hillary has been good all year in helping shut down some of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten. His next test will be Devin Smith, who leads the team in receiving yards (662) and yards per reception (25.5). Smith has proven to be a big play threat throughout his career, and Hillary will have to make sure he doesn’t allow Smith to get behind the coverage. If the pass rush isn’t consistent in getting after Jones, the fallout will result in Hillary having to defend a little longer in coverage. Hillary may also switch over to Michael Thomas, who leads the team in receptions (40) and touchdowns (eight to go along with his 639 receiving yards.
Regardless of who Hillary is defending, Wisconsin’s junior cornerback has to continue to play smart football and avoid coverage penalties. He has been good in pass coverage all year, ranking second on the team in both pass deflections and break ups with five. If Hillary can consistently make a play on either Smith or Thomas, it could shut down one side of the field for Wisconsin and will limit who Jones can throw the football to, which would be small victories for Wisconsin.
7, Michael Caputo S (4): Caputo did a good job of defending Gophers tight end Maxx Williams, who caught his only pass off busted coverage. Caputo will be responsible in making sure Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman doesn’t get open. Heuerman doesn’t have as many receptions or receiving yards as Williams but both are similar in size, making Caputo’s role in defending the tight end important. It seems certain that defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will disguise blitzes to try and cause confusion with the inexperienced Jones at quarterback, plays that will likely involve the versatile Caputo.
Others to Note
Corey Clement RB: Clement’s ability to spell Gordon in critical moments continues to be important for Wisconsin’s offense. Despite his shoulder injury, Clement was effective rushing for 89 yards on seven carries against Minnesota’s rush defense. Clement has had a productive season (830 rushing yards) and will need to help wear down the Buckeyes’ rush defense.
Alex Erickson WR: Erickson was critical in helping the passing attack against Minnesota, recording a career-high 160 yards receiving, and will likely be Stave’s go to guy on pass plays. If Stave can throw an accurate football, Erickson will have a good chance of being able to make a play on the ball. If Erickson can continue to catch contested passes, it will help Wisconsin to consistently move the football down the field.
Joe Schobert OLB: Ohio State has three talented tailbacks who are effective runners and catch passes out of the backfield (Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, and Elliot all have registered at least 20 catches out of the backfield this season). Schobert will need to monitor the running back at times if he’s not coming on the blitz. Schobert leads Wisconsin in pass deflections and break ups with seven, making him critical element to Wisconsin’s defense.
Sojourn Shelton CB: Hillary won’t be able to cover Smith and Thomas the entire game and will need Shelton to be able to help shut down the other side of the field. Shelton has been up and down this season, but has played well in November. Both of Ohio State’s wide receivers are talented and have the ability to beat corners off the line of scrimmage. If he gets beat, Shelton has to make sure he doesn’t reach. Shelton struggled at times last year at Ohio State, giving up a passing touchdown and getting flagged for defensive pass interference. If the pass rush is there for Wisconsin, Shelton can’t bail out Ohio State by giving them a fresh set of downs and giving Ohio State more opportunities on offense.