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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive Preview: Wisconsin at Ohio State
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar
Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio

Wisconsin at Ohio State

3:30 p.m. (ET)


It's hard to believe that the college football regular season reaches the halfway point Saturday when the Buckeyes (4-1, 2-0) host the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers in Columbus, but the schedule doesn't lie. What's next...the leaves turning brown?  If that catches you off guard, so might the unblemished record for the Badgers heading into mid-October. Wisconsin has yet to play a ranked opponent, but they always seem to elevate their game against Ohio State, and this contest is their opportunity to get some national attention.

And speaking of being caught off guard....the onset of Fall also brings the flu season, and the Buckeyes have been hit hard by the flu bug the last two weeks, especially in the ranks of the offensive line. This week brought more missed practices as different players succumbed to the bug, and one starter has already been ruled out for Saturday. As a unit, their strength and readiness to compete at 100% will be a question mark until we see how they perform come game time.

What's Up With Wisconsin

Wisconsin has ridden a bruising running game and an opportunistic defense to their 5-0 record, but while the Badgers have been in control in all five of their victories, the pollsters remain unconvinced that they're a top echelon team. On the strength of their 31-28 road win at Minnesota last week, Wisconsin is ranked 25th in the coaches and Harris polls, and is just outside AP's Top 25 ranking. So the Badgers are coming to town looking not just for a win, but for some respect from the college football experts.

And something's got to give when a Wisconsin offense that has averaged 233 yards rushing per game over its last four games comes up against an OSU defense that has allowed just 231 rushing yards in its last four outings combined. Irresistible force John Clay, the Badgers' stud running back, meets immovable object, the OSU defensive line and linebackers, with the game's outcome likely to be determined by the winner of the match-up. The Badgers bring a tough, physical style of play regardless of their record, and this year's contest figures to follow the pattern of recent slugfests.

Most of us remember last year's contest in Madison, a comeback win for Ohio State that observers at the time considered a coming out party of sorts for Terrelle Pryor, as the freshman engineered the last minute TD drive and scored the winning points on an 11-yard option run. Wisconsin came into that game off of a second-half collapse in Ann Arbor that had seen them blow a 19-0 halftime lead (and their undefeated season) and lose to the Wolverines 27-25. And yet one week later they played a much better OSU team on even terms until that bitter end. It was an extremely hard-hitting that OSU wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said this week he can't even remember...and understandably so, since he was sandwiched by two Badger defenders and knocked unconscious after making a catch.

The Buckeyes must have taken something out of the Badgers that day though, because that game was the last anyone would see for a while of that competitive Badger bunch, as they got blown out in their next two games by Penn State (48-7) and Iowa (38-16), and their hopes for a conference championship were essentially toast, though they did eventually secure a bowl bid. In contrast, this year's Badgers seem to be avoiding some of the inconsistencies, mistakes and defensive lapses that plagued them a year ago. Surely the caliber of their early 2009 opponents (combined 10-14 record) has something to do with that, but two other key factors are just as significant.

Badgers on Offense

First, they are getting much more consistent, quality play at quarterback with Scott Tolzien, the junior from Chicago who is currently leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency, and outplaying some of the more heralded quarterbacks in the conference. He has completed over 65% of his passes and has thrown nine touchdowns to just three interceptions. Tolzien has been efficient, not flashy, working mostly on short and intermediate high-percentage throws, with very few long downfield completions. He has limited his mistakes and played smart...which is of course a lot easier to do when you're supported by a running game featuring John Clay.

Clay has come into his own in his sophomore year even while briefly losing his starting running back spot to Zach Brown earlier in the season. He leads the Big Ten with a 116.4 yards per game rushing average, and has scored seven TD's. Clay is another in the line of big Badger backs that includes Ron Dayne and the man Clay understudied last year, P.J. Hill. He's huge for a running back at 6' 1", 248 lbs, but he has the agility and the quickness to run around a defender as easily as he can run over him.

Buckeye fans may remember how Clay gashed the fatigued OSU defense late in the 4th quarter of last year's game, picking up yardage in big chunks as the Badgers moved in for the go-ahead TD that set the stage for Pryor's heroics. Again this year, he is wearing down the opposition as the game goes along. Last week against Minnesota, Clay piled up 159 of his 184 rushing yards in the second half. Brown is more than capable as a backup, and they run behind an offensive line that is typically big for a Wisconsin unit.

Left tackle Gabe Carimi (6' 7", 325) anchors the line, and his opposite number on the right is highly recruited sophomore Josh Oglesby (6' 7", 330). The Badgers have survived some early season injuries on the interior of that unit, and will likely start John Moffitt and Kevin Zeitler at the guards, and Peter Konz at center, with Konz at 315 lbs. the lightest of that group.

Tolzien has a capable group of receivers led by Nick Toon, (yes, he's the son of NFL star and former Badger Al Toon) who leads the receiver group with 22 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns. But in keeping with another Badger tradition, their passing game thrives on the play of the tight ends. Tolzien's favorite target this year is Garrett Graham (6' 3", 250) a preseason All-Big Ten selection who blocks well, but can also get down the field, and has terrific hands. Graham's 23 catches and 4 touchdown receptions lead the team, and his running mate at tight end, Lance Kendricks, has 12 more catches and two more TD's. You'll see them on the field together at times, and the ability of the OSU linebackers and safeties to cover and contain them could be a big key to stifling the Wisconsin passing attack.

But for the Bucks on defense, containing Clay will be Priority One. The OSU defensive front will be without starting defensive tackle Dexter Larimore, who sprained a knee in the Indiana game and will not play for at least this game and possibly longer, although it appears he will not require surgery. Larimore had been playing extremely well so far, and he'll be missed, but the depth along the OSU defensive front has been a big factor in the success of the defense to this point, and Larimore's absence will just mean more playing time for guys like Todd Denlinger, Rob Rose and freshman Johnny Simon, all of whom have performed well when called upon this season.

The Buckeye defense has generally done well at preventing the big play, and Wisconsin doesn't often try to make the big play, so it's reasonable to assume that Ohio State will crowd the line of scrimmage on defense, and try to penetrate to stuff Clay and pressure Tolzien without worrying too much about having the Badgers throw over the top of them.

As calm and consistent as Tolzien has been to this point, the talent across the ball from him will be superior to what he has seen thus far, and 105,000 very loud and hostile fans aren't going to make it any easier for him either. Juice Williams, Aaron Opelt and Ben Chappell all had some pretty good numbers too, before they faced Ohio State's defense. If Tolzien can stay composed all day, and have a big passing day against these Buckeyes, he'll deserve a tip of the cap. For now, color me skeptical.

Badger's Defense Suspect

Much of the Badgers' trouble in 2008 could be attributed to problems on defense, and many of the better players from the 2008 unit are gone. Linebackers DeAndre Levy and Jonathan Casillas, both of whom beat up on OSU last year, are history, as are CB Allen Langford and DE Matt Shaughnessy. Just four projected starters on the Badger defense were starting a season ago, and it has shown in the 27.2 points per game they have given up against their four FBS opponents in the 2009 season.

Defensive end O'Brien Schofield (6' 3", 248) is probably the best player on the defense side of the ball for Wisconsin, and the 5th year senior has been living in opponents' backfields so far this season. Schofield has 11 tackles for loss to lead all FBS players, and his 4.5 sacks leads the Big Ten in that department. He'll be matched up mostly against OSU's sophomore right tackle J.B. Shugarts, providing yet another challenge for the first-year Buckeye starter. Last week against the highly-touted Indiana DE duo of Greg Middleton and Jammie Kirlew, Shugarts and fellow sophomore Mike Adams did a solid job of neutralizing the best of the IU defenders, reducing them to a marginal role in the game. Watch Saturday to see how they do against Wisconsin's #50.

Jaevery McFadden is the only starter returning to the linebacking corps, but the Badgers have quality replacements in Mike Taylor at OLB, and in the middle it's Culmer St. Jean, who looks to be cut from the DeAndre Levy mold.

Hard-hitting safety Jay Valai is back at safety, although his role on this defense is as much in run support as it is in coverage. At the other safety spot is senior Chris Maragos, a fundamentally solid player who complements Valai with good coverage skills. The Badgers will probably start sophomores Devin Smith and Antonio Fenelus at the corners, although they have as many as five guys who could play at the CB spots on Saturday.

The secondary has been vulnerable to the big play, and the defense as a unit has given up a lot of passing yardage. If the OSU line can keep Schofield out of Pryor's face, he could have a big day throwing the football. The Badgers are currently ranked second in the conference with 14 sacks.

One Flu Over...

As noted above, the biggest question in this week's OSU preparations was which players were going to be healthy enough to play at all. The flu has been taking down Buckeye offensive linemen one after another for two weeks, to the point that offensive line coach Jim Bollman doesn't know which players he's going to have at practice from one day to the next.

Starting left tackle Andrew Miller was the first to go down, having missed the Indiana game with the flu (punter/holder Jon Thoma didn't make the trip either), and it looks like Miller is still not well enough to go this Saturday. Then both left guard Justin Boren and tight end Jake Ballard were hit with the bug enough to miss practices this week. Late word is that Boren is now feeling well enough to go on Saturday, but the jury is still out on Ballard's availability. When tackle Mike Adams missed a practice earlier in the week, it was thought that he too was down with the flu, but his situation turned out to be a minor injury that won't keep him out of action for Wisconsin.

All the missed practice time due to flu (plus the injury to starting tackle Jim Cordle) and subsequent shuffling around of offensive linemen has not only made Coach Bollman appreciate the versatility of his players, but has also generated a silver lining of sorts for the OSU offensive line as a group. Miller's absence last week forced co-starter Mike Adams to go pretty much the whole way at left tackle against Indiana, while Shugarts did the lion's share of the duty on the right side. But the thin ranks at tackle caused the coaching staff to take the redshirt off of true freshman Marcus Hall for the Indiana game, and Hall played significant minutes at right tackle, and played very well.

Hall, another Glenville product, was one of the nation's top prep linemen a year ago, but his emergence as a capable front line player in the rotation in his first year is a pleasant surprise. Less than a week after his Buckeye debut, practice observers were raving about his play in preparations for this week's game, so we're sure to see more of #79 on Saturday, probably just at right tackle. Last week, when Hall came into the game, Shugarts moved over to replace Adams at left tackle.

Speaking of versatility, former walk-on Andrew Moses is backing up all three positions on the inside of the O-line, as Boren has missed time at one guard, and Cordle is still missing as the primary backup at center. And unless somebody sneezed on them recently, it looks like center Mike Brewster and guard Bryant Browning have avoided the bug that bit their fellow-linemen.


Word out of OSU practice this week is that another Buckeye true freshman could be shedding the redshirt against Wisconsin. Running back Jamaal Berry, who missed time in the spring recovering from an offseason surgery, and then suffered a hamstring injury in fall camp, has told friends he is going to see his first game action on Saturday. Berry was one of the nation's top high school running backs a year ago, but took a back seat this fall to fellow freshman Jordan Hall, who has made a strong early impression on the coaches.

Dan Herron is also back to full-go status after sitting out the Indiana game with an ankle sprain, and based on the game Brandon Saine had against the Hoosiers (113 yds on 17 carries), Herron might be getting that old Wally Pipp feeling. With Herron and Saine, plus the freshmen Hall and Berry all ready to tote the ball for the Buckeyes, keeping fresh legs in the game shouldn't be a problem. And don't forget that other rushing threat in the backfield...the one wearing #2.


The competition Wisconsin has faced in their five wins in 2009 hasn't been very good, with Michigan State probably the best team they've played, but Bret Bielema appears to have a better overall Badger team this year than he did last season. They are an efficient, fundamentally sound group, with a very strong running game, a good offensive line, and an excellent kicking game. Their play action passing, especially to the tight ends, should be effective as long as the running threat of Clay and Brown is credible. They have protected Tolzien very well so far, giving up just two sacks, and Tolzien has been relatively accurate and mistake-free. They should be just productive and unpredictable enough to put up 14-17 points against the Buckeye defense, if things go well for them.

The Badger defense is another matter, however. I see no reason to think this defense will be able to contain Terrelle Pryor and the offensive weapons of Ohio State, unless the Buckeyes beat themselves with penalties and/or turnovers. That said, the silly, unnecessary interceptions that Pryor has thrown this year, and the fumbles he has lost against teams like Toledo and Indiana could hurt the team in a big way if they continue against a quality opponent like Wisconsin.

But Pryor knows from last year's experience how intense and physical this contest is likely to be...and that this game is an early test to prepare OSU for the yet tougher competition coming up for the Buckeyes in that three-week stretch in November (PSU, Iowa, Michigan).

If the weather cooperates, I can envision Pryor and his receivers having a big day against the Wisky secondary, and Brandon Saine continuing to find himself as a regular Big Ten running back with a second straight 100-yard day. I've got the Bucks coming out on top by 10 or so...say 27-17.



OSU Athletic Communications - Game Notes (pdf)

2009 OSU Roster

2009 Wisconsin Roster

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