1. Will the real Ohio State defense please stand up?
The Buckeyes hung their hat on stifling defense for more than a decade, but problems that started late last season crept into this one with alarming regularity in the first seven games of 2012.
Since giving up 49 points to Indiana on Oct. 13, they have played much better in wins over Purdue, Penn State and Illinois thanks to improved communication, tackling and health.
Head coach Urban Meyer looks forward to the return of senior linebacker Etienne Sabino to join classmate Zach Boren and budding star sophomore Ryan Shazier to spearhead the Silver Bullets this weekend. Sabino missed the past four games while healing from a broken leg, but he will be valuable against the traditional power running game of the Badgers.
2. Will the real Wisconsin offense please stand up?
The Badgers head home riding high after a school-record 564 yards rushing at Indiana, but the Hoosiers were already known as the worst run defense in the Big Ten even before being dinged for more than half a hundred in only 60 minutes of action.
In conference play, Wisconsin is second in the Big Ten at 269.3 yards per game, but that is skewed by the game in Bloomington along with a 467-yard day at Purdue earlier in the season. The Badgers have also seen their run game grind to a halt in losses at Nebraska and at home to Michigan State. They netted a combined 75 yards on 78 attempts in those two contests.
The Buckeyes lead the way in stopping the run during conference play with an averaged of 101.5 yards allowed, 17 yards better than the Badgers, who are in second place heading into this weekend.
Winning the game without winning the rushing battle would not be without precedent, however, as the Buckeyes have done so twice in the past eight meetings (2002 and 2009).
3. Will either team be able to move the ball through the air consistently?
There is little doubt where each of these offenses prefers to do its damage, and that is on the ground. The Badgers have run (441 times) more than twice as often as they have passed (212 throws), and Ohio State can nearly say the same thing (466 to 242).
The passing game has been dangerous but inconsistent for the Buckeyes, who have the Big Ten’s second-most efficient passer in quarterback Braxton Miller. He has completed only 56.9 percent of his passes, but the sophomore has eight completions of 40 yards or more and 14 touchdowns through the air.
Wisconsin has had to use three quarterbacks this season and enters the contest 11th in the Big Ten in passing yards (166.8 per game) but third in pass efficiency. Making his first start, senior Curt Phillips through only seven passes last week as the Badgers battered Indiana.
4. Will there be a game-changing play on special teams?
These have been frequent in the recent history of the series.
Curtis Grant blocked a Wisconsin punt last season to set up a 1-yard Ohio State touchdown drive, and the Badgers’ upset in 2010 was kickstarted by a return of The Opening kickoff for a touchdown.
In 2009, Ohio State’s 31-13 victory included a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Ray Small.
Both teams boast a punt return for a touchdown this season – thanks to Wisconsin’s Denzel Doe and Ohio State’s Corey “Philly” Brown – but neither has done much in the kick return game.
Punt protection has been an issue for Ohio State all season, as evidenced by the Buckeyes’ having three blocked.
5. Which team wins the first quarter?
Early doldrums have been an issue all season for Ohio State, which has been outscored 62-58 in the opening stanza through 10 games. The Buckeyes have at least 101 points in each of the other three quarters.
The Badgers have been even slower starters on offense so far, but they have been better on defense and enjoy a 47-29 advantage in the first quarter.
They would no doubt love to replicate the fast start from Ohio State’s last trip to Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers jumped in front 21-3 in an eventual 31-18 win over then-No. 1 Ohio State in 2010.
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