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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The No. 6 Ohio State football team will head to Madison on Saturday, with hopes of leaving Camp Randall Stadium with an 11-0 record intact while heading into the final week of its season. With that in mind, I chatted with John Veldhuis of BadgerBlitz.com to get his thoughts on this weekend's Big Ten battle between the Buckeyes and Badgers.
BA: The Buckeyes defense has struggled containing smaller shiftier playmakers all season, but the most success they found was stopping Michigan State running back Le'Veon Bell. With Wisconsin running a similar offensive attack to that of the Spartans, do you anticipate Bret Bielema trying to switch things up this week to get more playmakers in space, and if so, who are some of those playmakers?
JV: I don't think Bielema and offensive coordinator Matt Canada will switch things up right away, since Montee Ball has been one of their best play makers this season. He's been playing really well recently, too, including his 198-yard performance against Indiana last weekend. The Badgers don't really overhaul their scheme opponent-by-opponent, so I'm still expecting Ball to get a lot of touches. He's only one touchdown away from tying the NCAA record, and while they won't live or die trying to get him that record at home, I think they'd certainly like to see it.
However, the Badgers do have some options to work with if the Buckeyes are able to neutralize Ball. Specifically I'm talking about fellow back James White and quarterback Curt Phillips. The Badgers have had White running their new "Barge" formation, which is essentially an adapted Wildcat with about seven offensive linemen on the field at one time. White is very shifty, and he'll usually take that direct snap and work towards the perimeter to try and find a seam between the big guys up front. Phillips is also more mobile than previous Wisconsin quarterbacks, except for Russell Wilson. Phillips has a few plays drawn up where he has a designed quarterback run, but the three ACL surgeries have definitely taken a little bit of the luster off of his mobility.
BA: Speaking of Bielema, obviously the offseason heat between himself and Urban Meyer will be a storyline this week, even if it's a non-story for the coaches. How do you think that Bielema views Meyer, and do you think there's any real bad blood between the two of them?
JV: Honestly, I don't think there's that much bad blood between them. Bielema said as much this week, and said he enjoyed getting to meet with Meyer when he was an analyst for ESPN last year. I was there when Bielema made his now-infamous comments about Meyer's recruiting, and I definitely think they were a little overblown. The national media picked up on a "gentleman's agreement" story line, but I think he was actually referring to potential "bumping" on OSU's part.
Either way, both coaches have said since then that they've since reconciled that dispute, and there's no lingering resentment or anything. But that doesn't make the rivalry between the two schools any less tense. The Badgers will clearly be looking for revenge for last year's game in Columbus, and Bielema would definitely enjoy beating the Buckeyes again, since it's only happened once in his career.
BA: With Braxton Miller likely to be in New York in a few weeks as a Heisman Trophy finalist, how do you anticipate the Badgers attempting to slow down No. 5 on the Buckeyes, and what type of success do you think they'll find?
JV: Well, they're going to have to slow him down if they want to win. Bielema was very complimentary of Miller in his weekly press conference, and said that the Badgers were very interested in him during his initial recruitment. I haven't seen all of Miller's games, but I think Wisconsin's cornerbacks will be vital to their success. Devin Smith (the Wisconsin version) and Marcus Cromartie will have to keep Ohio State's receivers in check, so the rest of the defense can worry about keeping Miller from hurting them with his legs. Miller has shown he's more accurate this season, and the Badgers can't give him too many good looks in the passing game.
The nice part for the Badgers is they've gotten a few good games in a row out of their corners. They were particularly effective against Indiana's receivers, and the Badgers were able to ground Indiana's high-octane passing attack. They'll also need to limit the big plays that killed them last season, and they've definitely improved in that respect too. We'll see if they can keep it up against a much higher talent level.
BA: What's the current vibe around Madison when it comes to this year's Wisconsin team? Do fans view it as an underachieving one or are they more excited about the prospects of a potential third consecutive Big Ten title?
JV: I think this season has been more of a wake up call than a real disappointment. People expected great things out of Danny O'Brien and an almost completely new coaching staff, and they found out early on that their expectations were too high. The Badgers were due for a rebuilding year anyway, and I think people came to realize that, especially after Bielema subbed in Joel Stave for O'Brien. So while the Badgers have certainly underperformed compared to the last two seasons, I think most fans realize that something like this had to happen eventually.
However, I think people are still excited that the Badgers will get to compete for the Big Ten title again, even if it might come with an asterisk. A Big Ten Championship is a Big Ten Championship, and I think some fans are definitely excited at the chance to play Nebraska again (or Michigan, if that's how it works out.) Anything can happen in one game, and the Badgers have definitely shown improvement since their early-season struggles.
BA: What's your score prediction for Saturday's game and how do you see it playing out?
JV: Honestly, I could go either way with this game. The Badgers are favored by about a field goal this weekend, but it doesn't really feel that way to me. I think a Wisconsin win over the Buckeyes would still be an upset, especially since the Buckeyes have found ways to keep winning games this season. The Badgers have lost three games by nine total points, and we'll see if Phillips can lead the offense effectively against a tough Ohio State team. He didn't have to throw much against Indiana, but I'm certain he'll have to air out the ball a little bit against the Buckeyes. His arm strength is still a question mark, and if he struggles then it could be a long game for the Badgers.
With that said, I've said all year that the Badgers probably take one of the two games between Michigan State and Ohio State, and I should probably stick to my guns on this one. With the right game plan, I think the Badgers will move the ball effectively against the Buckeyes, and Phillips' lack of throwing film burns the Buckeyes once or twice. It'll be close, but Wisconsin's defense is under-rated this season, and I think they'll help the Badgers hold on for a 30-27 win.
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