I was skeptical this was possible before the season, but these Badgers are better overall than last year’s version. I think the defense prevents it from being a national championship caliber team, but the offense is more dangerous than it was in 2010.
Starting on offense, Russell Wilson is a big upgrade over Scott Tolzien, who was pretty overrated because he was able to keep it pretty much on autopilot all of his senior season and didn’t get the chance to make some of the terrible mistakes he made in ’09 that cost them games. Michigan State showed Wilson can be pressured into mistakes, but that is true of most quarterbacks. He’s a good leader and generally throws a pretty catchable pass. He’ll let it sail now and then, but he can also drop the ball into tight spots all over the field. He really does a good job of keeping plays alive in the pocket, but he’s also dangerous if he breaks out of there. MSU had a hell of a time keeping him contained. Same with Nebraska. And their receivers are excellent with their scramble rules.
Pretty much everybody on the field is a viable target in the passing game, too, including both running backs and multiple tight ends. They don’t have the playmakers at tight end they’ve had the past few years, but they have guys who can get the job done, and their fullback is a nice player, too. All can block as well.
Running back Montee Ball was a solid player last year, but I thought he was probably their third-best option in the backfield. After dropping some weight, he looks like the most improved player in the Big Ten this season. He has great quickness and vision and runs through arm tackles. James White is still a great second option, but they seem to be favoring White over the course of the season.
Nick Toon is a stud at wide receiver. He was hurt most of last year, so his continued availability and the addition of Wilson are what make me say this team is better than the 2010 version. Toon has great size, savvy and ball skills. No surprise he is the son of an NFL receiver. Can’t forget about Jared Abbrederis on the other side. He is pesky.
The offensive line hasn’t lost much, if anything, from last year’s loaded group as the two guys who were the pups – tackle tackle Ricky Wagner and guard Kevin Zeitler – have grown into very good players. They join center Peter Konz, who has played some in the past as well, as the three pillars of the line. The other two guys aren’t bad, although right tackle Josh Oglesby has never quite lived up to the hype he received as a five-star recruit. Of note, I thought last year’s Wisconsin offensive line was much better in pass protection than the usual Badger group, but this one looks pretty solid in that department as well.
As for the defense…. I thought it was a liability last year that never got exposed because the offense was so good and they were always playing with a lead. I still think that this year. They don’t have another J.J. Watt up front, but the rest of the defensive linemen who are back have improved somewhat since being frankly not very good at all last season. Tackle Patrick Butrym is a bit on the light side, but he is quick and can sort through traffic inside. The other guys flash occasionally but shouldn’t really scare anyone.
The only way this defense could be considered on par with last year’s is if you consider having Mike Taylor and Chris Borland both available together cancels out the loss of Watt. I don’t think it quite does, but those guys are both real standouts. Good athletes and tough guys. They run well and seem to have good instincts. The SLB is just a warm body. Ditto the three starting DBs not named Antonio Fenelus. I like Fenelus, a little hard-nosed cornerback, a lot both in coverage and against the run. He is aggressive and a good open-field tackler.
It will be interesting to see what they do schematically. I don’t think they want to load the box, but they might. Michigan State did not run the ball very well on them, but they haven’t really run the ball that well on anyone despite their reputation.
They gave Kirk Cousins a lot of coverage, and he did a great job of beating it, several times hanging around and waiting for things to develop in ways I’m not sure Braxton Miller is ready to do. He also got some great plays from B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Can anyone replicate them for OSU? We’ll see.
Wisconsin’s back seven runs pretty well, but aside from the three guys I mentioned by name, I don’t think they tackle well. They let a lot of MSU ball carriers pick up a lot of yards after the catch or first contact, and that was really the key to the game for the Spartans on offense. They created a bunch of big plays that way.
They might crowd the box, but I bet they go ahead and let the Buckeyes run it a bit and guard against the big play by staying back in cover 2. Daring Ohio State to beat you short might be a good idea when you know the coaching staff is not really that fond of ball control passing even when that turns out to be its easiest path to moving the ball. But they might come out and play super aggressive. We’ll see.
I think the magic number is 24. Probably the best Ohio State’s defense can hope to do is hold Wisconsin to 24. Can the Buckeyes reach that point on their own side of the ledger?
Maybe, but it will probably take some fortuitous field position and perhaps a score on special teams or defense.
As scrimmage play goes on a play-by-play basis, the edge should belong to the visitors, but teams control that aspect and lose football games every week.
And it doesn’t matter who the better overall team is because the winner has a very good shot at winning out and going to the Big Ten title game based on its remaining schedule.