Wisconsin turns to Ohio State’s challenge: ‘These are the games you live for’

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin running back Braylon Allen briefly pondered the historic question Saturday night before shaking his head at a loss for an answer. No, the 18-year-old sophomore sensation didn’t know the last time the Badgers beat Ohio State on the road in Columbus. When informed that this had not happened since 2004, Allen’s face went blank, as if he were talking about a Stone Age event.

“I wasn’t even a year old,” Allen said. “This is crazy.”

That stat is just one that underscores how tough the challenge will be for Wisconsin (2-1) to pull off an upset when it plays No. 3 Ohio State (3-0) at 6:30 p.m. CT Saturday in Columbus. The Buckeyes, a benchmark for all Big Ten teams, have become a perennial thorn in the side of the Badgers. Ohio State has beaten Wisconsin in eight straight games and 11 of the last 12 dating back to that contest in 2004 – five of which have come at the Horseshoe.

Given the dominance Ohio State has displayed over the years and the high level the Buckeyes are playing at right now, even the most optimistic Badgers fans could be forgiven for believing that their team, a 17.5-point underdog, to open the week – is a long chance win.

“I believe this is probably the biggest game I’ve ever been in, and so do a lot of my teammates,” Allen said. β€œAt the same time, you just have to look at it as another game, approach it the same way. Obviously I would say the focus of training will probably be a little bit different just because we know who we’re playing against.”

How good was Ohio State against the Big Ten? Over the last 10 seasons, Ohio State is an astounding 77-5 during regular-season conference play. The Buckeyes are 40-1 against Big Ten teams at home during that span, with the lone loss coming on Nov. 21, 2015, against a College Football Playoff seed Michigan State. Since that loss, Ohio State has won 25 straight home games against Big Ten foes, which includes wins over 12 nationally ranked opponents.

All of this might make it sound like winning at Wisconsin is impossible, and it certainly isn’t. Wisconsin is among the most consistently successful programs in college football and gave Ohio State quite a scare during that eight-game sweep. But Wisconsin, who last beat then-No. 1 Ohio State 31-18 in Madison during the 2010 season, must play as close to a perfect game as possible. Even the tiniest cracks are showing against the Buckeyes.

The losing streak began in 2011 when Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller threw a 40-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left to secure a 33-29 victory. Several close losses followed. There were two overtime losses at Camp Randall Stadium in 2012 and 2016. Wisconsin gave Ohio State a run for its money in a 31-24 loss in Columbus in 2013.

During the 2017 Big Ten game, undefeated Wisconsin had the ball at midfield with 1:28 left and a chance to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State intercepted a fourth down and won 27-21. When the teams last met, in the 2019 Big Ten Championship, Wisconsin led 21-7 at halftime before Ohio State blew the doors off the Badgers by scoring 27 unanswered points in the second half.

“I think if we want to get to where we want to be, that’s obviously one of the teams we’re going to have to beat along the way,” Wisconsin offensive lineman Tanor Bortolini said. β€œOhio State has been really good the last few years. They really dominated the Big Ten. But we’re excited to show them what we can do. They are obviously a really great team with a lot of great players. But it all comes down to how they play this Saturday, so I’m excited to see how we do.”

The most obvious reason for Ohio State’s dominance outside of good coaching is the sheer number of talented players on its roster. Over the course of a 60-minute game against Wisconsin and the occasional overtime, that talent often materialized in a big way.

Consider this: Wisconsin compiled its three best recruiting classes in program history from 2019-21, ranking No. 29, No. 26 and No. 16 in the 247Sports Composite. During that span, the Badgers signed two five-star prospects (offensive linemen Logan Brown and Nolan Rucci) and 12 four-star prospects. Ohio State, meanwhile, has gone 14, 5 and 2 nationally in that span, signing 13 five-star prospects and 36 four-star players. That doesn’t even include the additional two five-star and 18 four-star players signed in the 2022 class.

The 247Sports Team Talent Composite, which compiles the recruiting rankings of all active players, has Ohio State third and Wisconsin 25th.

“Ranking is just ranking to me,” Badgers receiver Marcus Allen said. β€œI feel like that’s how the coaches see it and that’s how the team sees it. Wisconsin, we’re known for bringing in the underdogs, we’re known for bringing in the three-star recruits, maybe four, maybe five here and there on the O-line. But other than that, I feel like we can compete with anyone. I feel like they’re throwing in another four star, well that doesn’t matter. It depends on whether he has a heart or not. I feel like that’s what we have compared to a lot of teams.”

CJ Stroud and Ohio State lead the FBS in yards per play. (Joseph Majorana/USA Today)

This year’s version of Ohio State looks just as great as many of its predecessors. Ohio State beat Toledo 77-21 on Saturday night in a game in which Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud threw five touchdown passes and three different receivers recorded at least 100 yards.

Stroud, a Heisman Trophy favorite, has completed 72.9 percent of his passes, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions this season. Ohio State’s offensive explosiveness should give Wisconsin’s defense its toughest test since the last time the teams met three years ago.

“We’ve just got to come out and play ball, play fast and play with confidence,” Badgers cornerback Ricardo Holman said. “I know we can get the job done.”

Wisconsin is two Saturdays removed from a surprising home loss to Washington State in which the Badgers committed too many penalties, turnovers and special teams mistakes. A 66-7 win against New Mexico State on Saturday may have helped solidify some of those issues β€” and revealed continued progress in the passing game β€” but it likely did little to quell questions about whether this program is ready and capable of taking the next step toward more consistent competition against higher-echelon programs.

Since the start of the 2018 season, Wisconsin is 5-11 under Paul Chryst against AP Top 25 teams. Chryst is 12-17 against ranked teams since taking over the program in 2015. A win Saturday in Columbus would mark Chryst’s most significant win to date and offer an opportunity to change the trajectory of what people think is possible for the Badgers this season season.

“To be able to go on the road against a really good, tough opponent early in the season and prove yourself and be tested, I think that’s great,” Badgers wide receiver Chimere Dike said. β€œWe should have a really good week of practice, we should have a really good week of preparation. I think we’re ready for it though. These are the games you live for, big away games against big opposition. I’m excited for this group. I’m excited for this team.”

(Top photo of Braelon Allen: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today)

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