The 12-0 and No. 4-ranked Wisconsin Badgers enter Saturday’s Big Ten championship game as an underdog to No. 8 Ohio State.
It’s the first time all season the Badgers haven’t been favored in a game, at least as of this writing.
As many times as these two teams have gone at it, there is one game that sticks in the craw of Badgers fans to date. The numbers 59 and 0 seem to ring an uncomfortable bell. That is what happened to Wisconsin the last, and only, time these two teams met in the Big Ten championship game.
Knowing the way Wisconsin deals with things, that game four years ago means little to the players and coaches. First off, none of the current coaching staff was there and secondly, the only players who remember that feeling following the game.
But, this could easily be the biggest Big Ten championship game in its brief history. A win by Wisconsin and its College Football Playoff time for the folks from Madison. A win by Ohio State and that dream ends for the Badgers, while the Buckeyes could have themselves a case for the playoff once again.
So, with all of that on the line, how do the Badgers pull off the win on Saturday and head towards a national championship? Let’s look at 5 keys to getting a victory.
Keep the Game Close Early
If there is one thing we know about the Badgers, it is that they are at their best in the second half of games. But, if they are down big heading in to the half, will it be too much to overcome? Ohio State’s season has certainly showed that could be the case.
OSU has been getting off to fast starts and killing games off early all season long. They are outscoring opponents 129 to 45 in the first quarter and are even better in the second quarter (180-69) of games. Luckily for the Badgers, opposing teams have struggled to score a lot — period.
Wisconsin has to flip the script a bit on the Buckeyes and force them to not score early, and that’s where they’ve excelled all season long. Opponents have only scored 86 points in the first half all season long, or an average of 7.1 points per half, per game.
Clearly something is going to give here on the scoreboard. If Wisconsin wants to win, it has to keep the Buckeyes offense in check to allow the offense to grind things out to set up the kill shot in the second half.
Get Pressure on J.T. Barrett Early
As we continue to progress throughout the week, it seems more and more likely that injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is at least going to give it a go on Saturday night. Does that mean he plays? If there’s a will, there’s likely a way for Barrett to get in at this point in time. Regardless of his health, one thing that has worked in the Buckeyes’ two losses this season has been pressure on Barrett.
Now, that pressure doesn’t have to result in sacks right away. He is still sometimes rattled when pressured in the pocket or when passing lanes aren’t totally open. If that pressure can lead to mistakes, whether it is missed throws or interceptions, Barrett can be thrown off his game. There’s also the fact that his mobility will be severely limited.
Wisconsin has been really good at jumping on weaknesses in their opponents game and there’s no doubt that Barrett’s relative health is a weakness that needs to be tested by Jim Leonhard and Co. If they can get after him, make him immobile, Ohio State’s offense is a sitting duck.
Limit Ohio State’s Big Plays in the Run Game
Ohio State comes in as one of the best rushing teams in the country, something Badgers fans should be very familiar with themselves. One of the big ways the Buckeyes have gotten to the top of the Big Ten rushing heap is due to big plays. OSU has put up 31 plays of 20-plus yards on the ground this year, and that should be a scary number to see.
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has been a dynamic play maker for them, but he isn’t ‘the only one capable of getting loose in the run game.
On the flip side, this is an area the Badgers have been highly successful in all season long against really good offensive lines as well. UW has given up just seven plays of 20-plus yards on the ground all season long. That number is fourth in the country to put it in perspective for you.
Limiting OSU’s ability to hit the big-gainer on the ground means J.T. Barrett the passer comes in to play. While he has been having a good season as a thrower, Wisconsin’s secondary against that Ohio State pass game plays right in to the Badgers hands. Of course, that is all predicated on Barrett actually being healthy enough to go in this game.
Score a Rushing Touchdown
This should be a bit obvious, but the numbers don’t lie when it comes to the Ohio State defense. When the opposition is getting in to the end zone via the ground there’s a good chance at winning. Even when the Buckeyes limited Oklahoma to just 104 yards rushing, the Sooners were able to get a rushing touchdown. That touchdown was a huge one too, as Jordan Smallwood ran in from just three yards out, but put Oklahoma up 31-13 with just 9:26 to play in the game. It was lights out for the Buckeyes chances after that.
Wisconsin’s formula has been to get the ground game going, open up the pass game a bit and score in multiple ways. It seems like, and is, an easy formula. But, no one has really been able to stop it all season long. Wisconsin comes in to this game trailing only OSU on the ground in the Big Ten — averaging 243.2 yards per game and scoring 27 times via the run game.
Perhaps the best bit of news is that the Buckeyes stingy rush defense has a major flaw — big plays. So far this season, OSU has given up 20 runs of over 20 yards. Wisconsin comes in having put up 25 of those and has had 85 rushes of over 10 yards on the year as well. With Jonathan Taylor more than capable of hitting the big play, this could be an area to exploit if you are Wisconsin.
Alex Hornibrook Avoids the Turnovers
Earlier this month we noted that Alex Hornibrook, who was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the media, would determine the success or failure of the Badgers getting in to the College Football Playoff. He’s responded with some of his best football down the stretch, including his first non-interception thrown game in the Big Ten portion of the season, last weekend.
Over the last four weeks of the season, Hornibrook has thrown eight touchdowns to just four interceptions. He’s also put up 146 yards per game and has completed 60 percent or more of his passes in all but one of those games.
Will the increasing confidence help or will he revert in to the timid quarterback that is afraid of pressure? Ultimately, the Badgers likely can’t afford to spot the Buckeyes points via turnover and Hornibrook has been prone to that all season unfortunately. If he can keep a goose-egg on the turnover front, Wisconsin could be a very good position to win this game.
Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers
No recruit has ever been as hyped as quarterback Graham Mertz has been in Wisconsin Badgers history.
Normally that would lead to coaches tempering their words and expectations. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s history of exactly that, it was a bit surprising to hear him speak with excitement about what Mertz may bring to the table in Madison.
So far, Chryst has been very impressed with how Mertz is handling everything on and off the field.
“Yeah, Graham has got a great personality,” said Chryst at Big Ten media day on Friday. “I think he’s done a nice job of — he came in the spring, and getting to know our teammates, and I think he’s handling — there’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well, and I think the team has handled it, as well.”
What has impressed the head coach most about his freshman quarterback? Chryst says it is how he is handling everything that has been thrown at him since he entered school in January.
“They’re experiencing a lot for the first time, going to school and being away from home, and there’s obviously a ton of football with it, and I think all three have handled it, and Graham has handled it well, and I’m excited for those three, Graham in particular, that went through spring and then you have summer and now they’ll be able to go into fall camp and it’s not all new to them,” said Chryst.
“But I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he’s — again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself, a good person, and I think that’s a great place to start.”
Perhaps the most telling statement from Chryst during his time at the podium on Friday, was the one where he actually used the words “excitement” and “Graham” in the same sentence.
“And certainly we’re excited, really excited about Graham,” Chryst said to the media. “He’s early in on the process, and so I like the group that we have. I’m thankful that we’ve got Jack coming back that’s played in games, and certainly looking forward to fall camp and seeing the growth and development of all of them.”
Does that mean Mertz is the immediate savior of the Badgers offense? No.
But, unlike years past, Chryst is at least willing to go out on a limb and live in the excitement of what could happen in the future.
This type of talk should only serve to continue to spark the speculation and the spotlight on the quarterback position in Madison in the next few weeks.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019
Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.
No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.
With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.
But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.
Best Case Scenario
The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.
Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.
Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.
No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.
Worst Case Scenario
If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.
My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.
Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.
As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.
Most Likely to Happen
As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.
I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.
It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.
Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.
As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019
We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.
Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.
What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.
Best Case Scenario
Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.
Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.
No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.
It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.
Worst Case Scenario
What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?
Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.
Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.
The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.
Most Likely to Happen
The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.
I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.
Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.
Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019
This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.
But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.
Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.
In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.
Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.
Best Case Scenario:
Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.
Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.
Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.
Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.
In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.
Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.
Worst Case Scenario:
Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.
Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.
If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.
Most Likely to Happen:
Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.
I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.
That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.
So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.
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