COLUMBUS, Ohio — Oklahoma was once viewed as Ohio State’s biggest test of the first half of the season, but the Buckeyes now find themselves preparing for a top-10 opponent in No. 8 Wisconsin.
To learn more about Ohio State’s sixth opponent of the season, we’ve turned to Benjamin Worgull of Badger Nation to get the Wisconsin point of view. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheBadgerNation and read his work here.
Q: How was Alex Hornibrook able to seize the quarterback job? How’s his health after the Michigan game?
Worgull: His performances in the second halves of against Akron and Georgia State showed he deserved a shot with the starting offense. He made his college debut in a 23-point game and promptly went 4-for-4 with a touchdown pass on his opening drive (the first of three scoring drives). A week later with the offense sputtering against Georgia State, Hornibrook was inserted into the game in the third quarter and propelled them to the finish line.
Hornibrook doesn’t have the strongest arm but he showed tremendous poise for a redshirt freshman and a savviness to him. In the 30-6 win against Michigan State (his first road start), he was 6-for-6 for 100 yards when the offense faced third-and-10 or longer.
His fall camp competition with senior quarterback Bart Houston was close and it appeared Hornibrook was more consistent throughout camp, so the change Chryst made wasn’t viewed as drastic to those who covered the program.
The only thing that possibly got injured at Michigan was his pride, as the pressure from the Wolverines and some spotty blocking up front caused him to make some uncharacteristic decisions and throws. His teammates are all united in the thought that he will bounce back.
Q: In what areas or at what positions does Wisconsin have a chance to have success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Worgull: It’s hard to overlook this defense, which will be unlike anything Ohio State has seen up to this point. The Badgers have thrived against three top-10 teams’ running games, giving up 110.3 rushing yards, a total of three touchdowns and two field goals and forcing eight turnovers. Through five games Wisconsin is fourth nationally giving up 12.2 points per game and has allowed just five offensive touchdowns over that stretch. It’s evident now that LSU and Michigan State are not elite teams but that doesn’t change the fact the Badgers dominated those opponents.
Ohio State brings many more wrinkles to the table than teams the Badgers have faced up to this point with the athletes, zone-read option and the balance. However, even without senior Vince Biegel, Wisconsin’s defense held a Michigan offense scoring over 52 points per game to only 14 two weekends ago. With extra time to prepare and study, UW could frustrate Ohio State’s offense in a number of ways.
Q: How has the team/program changed under Paul Chryst (if it has) compared to the teams coached by Gary Andersen?
Worgull: Night and day on offense. While they aren’t there yet, Paul Chryst is returning Wisconsin back to the physical brand that his former bosses – Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema – had when they were running the show in Madison. That includes a power offensive line and a running game that also sets up play action. Andersen wanted to incorporate more spread elements into Wisconsin’s offense, something he never was able to do because a) he was only at UW for two years b) he didn’t have the personnel on the roster to do it c) he couldn’t recruit to it from Wisconsin’s best recruiting regions. Had he stayed, many shudder to think where UW would be now.
However, Andersen’s decision to switch Wisconsin to a 3-4 base defense – with current LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda coordinating – had turned the Badgers’ “bend-but-don’t-break” style into a more aggressive, chaotic, high-impact defense. Because UW had been recruiting to that for two previous cycles, Chryst – traditionally a 4-3 guy – has stuck with it and it has paid off.
Q: What are the expectations around the program both for this game and the rest of the season as a whole?
Worgull: If this question was posed to the fan base at the beginning of August, I’m guessing the popular answer would be to not be embarrassed in these top-10 games and scratch out enough wins to make a bowl game for the 15th straight season. The narrative has drastically changed in two months. While I still sense some pessimism from the fan base around this game, especially considering there’s no Biegel and the offense looked anemic two weekends ago, Wisconsin fans know their defense is good enough to keep them in games and have faith in Chryst’s offensive background that he’ll get things figured out.
Following this game, Wisconsin’s final six games are all against Big Ten West opponents and the Badgers – after being underdogs four times thus far (double-digit dogs three times) – should be favored in every game the rest of the way. That gets fans excited that a trip to the conference title games for a fourth time in six years isn’t unrealistic.
Q: What do you expect the atmosphere to be like at Camp Randall on Saturday night?
Worgull: Electric. Wisconsin has had only two true home night games since the 2013 season and hasn’t had a home conference night game since 2011. Camp Randall is already a fun place to watch a game with the atmosphere but it’s a whole other animal when the lights are turned on and a top-10 team is in the building, let alone two top-10 teams.
Q: What’s your prediction?
Worgull: I’d be surprised if either team ran away with this game, but I do think Ohio State is the better team because of its defense. I think Wisconsin will be able to limit the Buckeyes in a lot of ways, but I can still see Ohio State putting some points on the board, probably in the low 20s. I can’t see this Wisconsin offense in its current state putting up 20-plus against this defense. UW has had a bye week to rest up and get healthy, so maybe it’s in the realm of possibility. I just have a hard time believing it’s there against a defense that is this talented.