Three years ago, an 11-1 Ohio State team came into the Big Ten championship game needing an impressive result against Wisconsin to push its way into the inaugural College Football Playoff field.
The Buckeyes rolled 59-0, using that blowout not only to get a playoff spot but riding that momentum to stun Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl and thrash Oregon 42-20 in the national championship game.
On Saturday night in Indianapolis, the East Division champion Buckeyes and West Division champion Badgers meet again, and the stakes are just as high for both teams. For Wisconsin, 12-0 and No. 4 in the playoff rankings, the equation is simple: Beat Ohio State and the Badgers will make the playoff for the first time. “Our job and our goal is to [find out] how we can be the best team we can be,” said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, the Big Ten’s coach of the year. “The focus is on that, an inward focus. This group is focused on being the best we can be.”
For Ohio State, 10-2 and No. 8 in the rankings, the math is more complex. The Buckeyes (10-2) first need to beat Wisconsin, then hope the victory is impressive enough to catapult them past No. 5 Alabama (11-1) and into the top four and hope both the ACC and SEC title game losers fall below them. “The term around here is laser focus, and laser focus is on Wisconsin and nothing else,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Here’s a look at the key story lines in Saturday’s game:
How healthy is J.T. Barrett?
Buckeyes senior quarterback J.T. Barrett was hit by a camera on the sideline before last week’s game against Michigan and suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery on Sunday. Meyer said Barrett will play against Wisconsin, though he didn’t say if he would start.
Behind Barrett, the Buckeyes have the Big Ten’s best offense, averaging 529.8 yards per game. He has passed for 2,728 yards and 33 touchdowns and rushed for 672 yards and seven TDs.
“They certainly spread you out and yet they do a great job of running the football,” Chryst said. “I think their quarterback J.T. is a great distributor. He runs their offense and makes you defend the whole field. You’ve got to have great discipline.”
If Barrett can’t play, redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins, who has passed for 565 yards and four TDs, would get the call.
Can Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor be stopped?
Following in the tradition of Ron Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon, the Badgers have a workhorse back in freshman Jonathan Taylor. The Big Ten’s leading rusher with 1,806 yards, Taylor has been remarkably consistent, rushing for more than 100 yards nine times and more than 200 three times. As the Gophers found out last week, Taylor and Wisconsin’s massive offensive line will wear down a defense.
“The offense is just giant human beings up front with a good run game and a very productive quarterback,” Meyer said. “They got their niche, and they are good as anybody in the country recruiting to that and developing people.”
Strength vs. strength
Ohio State has the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring offense, averaging 43.8 points per game. Wisconsin has the nation’s second-best scoring defense, giving up 12 points per game. Something’s gotta give here.
With Barrett not 100 percent healthy, look for the Buckeyes to lean heavily on their run game, with freshman J.K. Dobbins (1,190 rushing yards, seven TDs) and sophomore Mike Weber (602 yards, 10 TDs) carrying the load. That won’t be easy, however, against Wisconsin’s swift defense. Led by linebackers T.J. Edwards (11 tackles for loss) and Ryan Connelly (10 tackles for loss), the Badgers are allowing only 80.5 rushing yards per game, best in the nation.
Which Buckeyes team will show up?
Though Ohio State won the rugged Big Ten East, the Buckeyes were an enigma for much of the season. The lost 31-16 at home in Week 2 to Oklahoma and flag-planting QB Baker Mayfield, but then had a stirring, fourth-quarter comeback from 15 points down to beat Penn State 39-38 on Oct. 28. A week later, however, the Buckeyes were blown out of Kinnick Stadium, falling 55-24 to an Iowa team that finished 7-5.
“Focus on your responsibility,” Meyer said of his expectations of his team. “When they do, we’re a heck of a team. When they don’t, we’re like everybody.”
Ohio State certainly has been tested, playing in the Big Ten East and facing a more difficult nonconference schedule than Wisconsin. The Badgers, meanwhile, have gone about their business in a workmanlike manner, bludgeoning opponents with their run game and suffocating them on defense. Though the Buckeyes are the more explosive team on offense, Barrett’s injury will be a factor. The Badgers’ consistency on defense — Wisconsin has allowed only five offensive touchdowns in the past seven games — should rule the day. Wisconsin 24, Ohio State 20.
Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib E-mail: email@example.com