The third of Wisconsin’s three straight Big Ten Conference championships came with an asterisk as big as a Badger offensive lineman.
Yes, Wisconsin went to the 2012 Big Ten championship game, which it won handily over Nebraska. Yes, the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl, where they gave Pac-12 champion Stanford all it could handle.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin has been treated as nothing more than a placeholder for Ohio State. Since the Buckeyes finished 12-0 in 2012, the unfolding 2013 season has felt like little more than a coronation for Urban Meyer’s team.
Wisconsin heads into Saturday’s tilt as the only realistic challenge to Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Even as such, the Badgers are 7.5-point underdogs according to the sharps in Las Vegas, a slightly greater disparity than last year’s 21-14, overtime differential.
“The way we prepare will be no different because it’s Ohio State,” Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said in his press conference this week. “We’re going to do what we do. We believe in how we prepare. Whether we play well, we play bad, or we win or we lose, we’ll continue to prepare the same way.”
Still, the Badgers have to have some added motivation in facing their asterisk, and the team much of the nation has already penciled in for a Big Ten championship.
Wisconsin is, after all, the defending champion until someone else hoists the trophy.
Stock put in the Buckeyes is well placed, of course. Meyer has forced a shift in philosophy around the Big Ten in less than two seasons as head coach.
“If you watch the tape from a year ago to now, it’s obvious that they’ve made an emphasis to recruit speed in a lot of different areas on the offensive side of the ball,” Andersen said. “They’ve got receivers that can run, catch, make plays. They do have a lot of speed there.”
Ohio State is loaded with talent, evident in the percolating question behind center. Either Braxton Miller or Kenny Guiton can play quarterback Saturday, and both have proven he can do so more than effectively.
Few teams enjoy such luxury. Typically, the loss of a starting quarterback strikes a major blow to any offense, which Wisconsin learned last season. The Badgers never found an adequate replacement for Russell Wilson last season, and as a result the offense sputtered.
Now, Joel Stave didn’t become Wilson over an offseason. Replicating what Wilson accomplished in his one season in Madison is not a realistic benchmark to set for current and future Badger signal callers.
However, Stave has been a competent complementary piece to the multifaceted running attack of Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement, more akin to Scott Tolzien than Wilson.
As for the Badger backfield, Gordon is quietly having a Heisman caliber season. His 156 rushing yards a game lead the Bowl Subdivision, and his seven touchdowns rank second nationally.
“It seems like every year they get, if not the same quality back, but better,” Meyer said in this teleconference call this week. “I haven’t seen the whole country, but I can’t imagine two better backs on the same team [than Gordon and White].”
One of the only two players with more rushing touchdowns on the season than Gordon is Ohio State’s Jordan Hall with eight. Hall is one prong of the dual piece rushing attack the Buckeyes employ, alongside the recently reinstated Carlos Hyde.
In typical Big Ten fashion, Saturday’s matchup likely comes down to defenses stopping offenses determined to impose the run. Both the Badgers and Buckeyes rank in the top 10 against the rush, albeit with a skewed sample.
Each defense is predicated largely on playmaking linebackers, which makes that critical run-stopping component all the more intriguing.
Chris Borland’s return to the Badger lineup in a new, 3-4 base scheme has proven key to the Wisconsin defense.
Borland may be the Badgers’ X-factor in countering the speed Ohio State now emphasizes in its approach.
The Buckeyes’ new approach winning out continues the transition into a different era for the Big Ten.