It isn’t supposed to bother them, but it does.
Somewhere, in the dark recesses of their minds, deep down somewhere they don’t even like to admit exists, Buckeye fans worry about the Wisconsin Badgers.
It isn’t supposed to be this way. A proud member of college football’s elite, one of the “Big Two,” they count Heisman trophies and national titles as much as the Badgers count Rose Bowls (not Rose Bowl wins, just appearances).
THE Ohio State University is supposed to dwell on foes like USC, Texas, Michigan, and Florida (okay, maybe they don’t like thinking about those SEC teams, but you catch my drift).
Wisconsin? One of the Little Nine?
Oh, but they’re worried. (Well, maybe not the Ohio State Creature; check his opinion out here.)
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, when Woody Hayes (enunciated with proper reverence) roamed the sidelines, the Buckeyes made short work of the Badgers. They remember scores like 52-7, 56-0, 42-0, 59-0. Dominance.
Overall, the series is safely and forever in Buckeye hands, with a 52-17-5 all-time advantage.
Unranked, unloved, and unimpressive, the Badgers hadn’t beaten THE Ohio State since 1959. But a funny thing happened in 1981: The Badgers did win, upsetting the No. 18 Buckeyes at Camp Randall. Then the Badgers did it again the next year in Columbus.
Now, we’re still talking about THE Ohio State University, right? So yeah, even since 1981, the Buckeyes hold an edge in the series. Including those two losses, the Buckeyes are still up, but it’s only 13-10-1, and that includes the Don Morton era in Madison.
You know what else? The Buckeyes were favored in every game. That means the Badgers upset the Buckeyes nearly every other game.
Think about that.
Even when Wisconsin isn’t very good, they have a knack for giving the Buckeyes trouble.
Not just the John Cooper Buckeyes either. Nope. This includes the Jim Tressel squads—the ones with winning records against every Big Ten foe (7-1 vs. Michigan)...except Wisconsin, against whom Tress is 3-3.
The national title winners? They only beat an unranked Wisconsin program by five. The No. 4 squad in 2003? Lost to another unranked Badger squad. Then, back in Columbus, it happened again the next year.
That’s why the Buckeyes are worried. Not that they would admit it. That’s below such a proud program. But they’re nervous.
And they should be.
I’m not so bold as to say Wisconsin will win, but they might, and here’s why:
Sure, the Buckeyes held the mighty Trojan ground game largely ineffective (except when it mattered), but the Buckeyes have yet to face a quarterback who presents any kind of threat. USC’s Matt Barkley, making his first start in major college football, wasn’t a legitimate threat (turned out, he didn’t need to be).
And Toledo? Come on. Purdue beat Toledo.
Scott Tolzien is such a threat. He leads the conference in efficiency, he spreads the ball around to a talented group of receivers, he cycles through his reads, and he stands tough when the pressure is on, taking a hit to deliver the ball.
The last time the Buckeyes saw a Badger signal caller like this? John Stocco, 2004. Hey history majors, how’d that one go?
With a quarterback who can play, the Badgers run a dangerous and balanced offense, complemented with a tailback even the Buckeyes wish they had, John Clay.
The Badgers are efficient too. Get in the red zone and they score touchdowns (18 on 22 trips).
The Badgers won’t shred the Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes are too good for that. But nor will OSU shut them down. Clay and fellow tailback Zach Brown will get their yards. Nick Toon, Isaac Anderson, and Garrett Graham will make their receptions, and the Badgers will get on the board.
The Badger defense isn’t as tough as the Ohio State defense, but they don’t need to be. They aren’t facing the Badger offense. Instead, they will line up opposite a quarterback who runs hot and cold from one series to the next. Sure, he was efficient last season when Beanie Wells carried the load, but Beanie’s gone now, and Terrelle Pryor is rattled.
What of the mighty former No. 1 recruit Pryor? Not having his strongest year, is he? Oh, sure, he did enough to beat Indiana and Illinois. Someone alert the presses.
They won’t admit it to the outside world, but Buckeye Nation is struggling with Pryor. He flashes brilliance, loping away from trouble or setting his feet and firing a strike downfield. Then he panics and throws to no one and everyone (including the guys in the wrong-colored shirts).
No, the Badger D aren’t world-beaters, but O’Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt will get in Pryor’s grill and force a mistake or two. The Badger D will keep the play in front of them and force the Buckeyes to sustain long drives. The Buckeyes will sustain a couple of times—and most of the time they won’t.
When, as it has so many times over the last three decades, the game hangs in the balance, do you trust the confident and efficient quarterback at the helm or the talented but rattled phenom?
If history is any guide, it will hang in the balance, and one of those guys will have to step up.
Think Matt Schabert, and don’t count the Badgers out.