One thing is for sure about tomorrow night's game at the Horseshoe in Columbus, there will be no lack of motivation for either Wisconsin or Ohio State thanks to the events of the last 12 months or even the last seven days. Ohio State won't soon forget the events of last year in Madison as Wisconsin throttled the Buckeyes 31-18 and Wisconsin will be out to prove last weekend was just a fluke loss to the Spartans.
Coming off the heartbreaking, last second, 37-31 loss to MSU Bret Beilema and the Badgers hope to learn a lesson and move forward to what's at hand. He made it very clear to his players, saying, "...you should never get used to this feeling. This feeling should hurt. It should be in your mind, and it's something that we need to get rid of and shake out tonight, Sunday night." So it's clear that they want to move forward, the question was how and what is still at stake for the Badgers now that their national title hopes have but vanished?
Bielema has been in this position before, having coached at Kansas State, and will clearly emphasis the importance of divisional play as they move forward from the loss last weekend. "I had a great two years of learning divisional play within a conference... we lost two or three games early on that no one really had predicted." Bielema said. "But Bill Synder... he said, if we take care of our business, we can get in the conference championship game and get to a BCS game. And everybody's kind of looking at him like he had three heads, you know. And, lo and behold, we started playing pretty well and came down to the end. I think we had to beat Kansas to make it to the championship game. We did that. And then we beat the No. 1 team in the country in Oklahoma, who was, at that time, regarded to be the best in the country and put ourselves in a BCS game."
Bielema will use that experience at Kansas State and apply it to this situation, "we explain to them that this week is a divisional game. Four of our next five are. The only one that's not is Minnesota, which I don't think we'll have any issues getting motivated for that game. So with Purdue, with Penn State and Ohio State coming, those are big ones."
I have no doubt that Bielema and his staff have this team singularly focused on the task ahead of them tomorrow and not looking back to the Michigan State game one bit.
What about the other side of things? Well, Buckeyes Head Coach Luke Fickell and the rest of the staff were on the field at Camp Randall last season, but aren't focusing on redemption from that game. "None of us forget the feeling. That's probably the most important thing." Fickell said, "You learn from losses. You learn how to react and respond. But you never forget the feeling. That's the one thing I reminded them of. We're not going to dwell upon last year. That was last year. We're focused on what we do, but don't forget the feeling."
With all of the off the field stuff really being taken care of behind closed doors, it's what happens on the field this Saturday that will make or break someone's season for good. Ohio State is coming off a bye week and a much needed one for an offense that needs to fix some things even though they won their last game two weeks ago, 17-7, against a then ranked Illinois team. That game exposed some major problems that a better team than the Illini on offense would have exposed.
Ohio State got QB Braxton Miller behind center for his 2nd game as a starter two weeks ago and his passing game was, well, "inadequate", to put it nicely as he completed only one pass for the entire game. He went a whole 1 of 4 for 17 yards, yet that one completion was for a TD amazingly. Additonally, Miller only added 34 yards rushing on 12 attempts. So, how did they win that game? Simply put, the return of starting RB Dan "Boom" Herron. His season debut after serving not one, but two suspensions, saw him go for 114 yards and 1 TD, while averaging 5 yards a carry. Not bad against what was once one of the better defenses in the conference.
Clearly Wisconsin must focus on stopping the rushing attack of Herron and backup RB Jordan Hall
(56yd on 12 carries last game) if they are to win this game. Last week against a very good tandem of running backs at Michigan State they only allowed 109 yards on the ground and currently rank 5th in the B1G, giving up 121.1 yards a game. Helping the cause is one of the best LB tandems in the country: MLB Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who are both being looked at as possible all-American candidates. Borland is 16th in the FBS (2nd in conf.) with 71 total tackles (13 tackles last week) and Taylor ranks 35th in tackles nationally with 64 (tie for 4th in conf.). Adding to that is the fact that both have been great at shooting the gaps as the two have combined for 14.5 tackles for a loss this season.
On the other side of things Wisconsin still ranks amongst the best offenses in the country despite the hard 2 1/2 quarters from last week. It is still the only offense in the country to average over 250 yards a game in both passing and rushing. Quarterback Russell Wilson slipped to 2nd in passer efficiency in the country behind Robert Griffin III after last week, but is still over the 200 mark at 209.4. He is also on pace to set many all time Badgers passing records including yards in a season and TD's. However, this is a road game and the pattern of Wilson playing poorly on the road throughout his career has to be a concern for Badgers fans. He currently has a 140.8 passer efficieny ranking in road games for his career, below his overall average of 153.6. He must also avoid bad mistakes that really hurt Wisconsin last week, like throwing the ball away while still in the pocket, causing a safety.
However, the key match up for this game will be Wisconsin's running game vs. an ever improving Ohio State rush defense. Currently Wisconsin only sits behind Nebraska in the conference in terms of rushing, averaging 252.1 yards a game, while Ohio State is only giving up 116.6 yards a game defensively. Something has to give and just like last year, if Wisconsin runs the ball well it could be a very long day for the Buckeyes. Fortunately for the Badgers it appears that Montee Ball looks good to go for Saturday's game, something that was in a bit of doubt despite playing through a clear knock to the head last week and gaining 115 yards on the ground. He also added one TD.
All of this adds up to a Wisconsin victory in my mind. While the Ohio State defense is improving they have yet to face a rushing attack quite like Wisconsin's and yes, I'm including Michigan State in that. I just don't see guys like Wilson, Ewing, Henry, Borland, and Abbrederis letting things spiral out of control. In the end it's Wisconsin becoming the 1st conference team to beat Ohio State in back to back seasons since we did it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
If you're looking for a score prediction you'll have to tune in tomorrow night starting at 5:30pmCT as myself and Adam Billmann give you the most up to date coverage leading up to the game on Wisconsin GameDay LIVE! Join us in person from The Vault in De Pere, WI if you are in the area as there will be tons of things going on before, during, and after the game exclusive to those in attendance. As a sweet reminder of how much fun it is to romp all over O$U, check out our football analyst Arman Belding's highlight video from last year and as always, until tomorrow night... ON WISCONSIN!!