COLUMBUS, Ohio — A huge four-game stretch for Ohio State opens with maybe the biggest test of the bunch.
The Buckeyes are slated to play four consecutive night games, with the first two on the road and the next two at home. A trip to No. 8 Wisconsin leads off that stretch (8 p.m. ET, TV: ABC), offering a critical midseason challenge for the second-ranked Buckeyes.
There are a number of factors that will come into play at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, but here are five key things to watch for:
1. The first quarter
Ohio State has been dreadful in the first quarter during its most recent three home games, all of which came against overmatched foes. The first 15 minutes ended with a 3-3 tie against Tulsa, a 6-0 lead over Rutgers and a 3-3 tie against Indiana. The Buckeyes have scored just 47 points in the first quarter this season compared to 97 in the second quarter and 70 in the third quarter. Even in the fourth quarter, which has been defined by restraint in blowouts, OSU has scored 52 points.
In an interesting twist, Ohio State’s best start of the season came in its only road game and against its only ranked opponent to date. Urban Meyer’s team jumped out to a 14-0 lead en route to a 45-24 win against Oklahoma. Ohio State will need to return to that level of execution against Wisconsin.
2. Hornibrook’s health
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook didn’t play very well in a 14-7 loss to No. 4 Michigan, but there’s at least one explanation for it. The redshirt freshman told Land of 10 Monday that he took a brutal hit to the ribs early on and spent the rest of the game dealing with the pain.
“I didn’t think anything of it, but it definitely affected how I was throwing the ball,” he said. “That (hit) kind of set off a couple of other things, and I was playing (hurt). But the main thing is just executing and finishing on plays.”
Whether or not he will be at full strength when the Buckeyes come to town remains to be seen, but Ohio State could cause more problems if its defensive line puts some hits on him. The Buckeyes haven’t had the sack numbers yet that many have expected, but there’s so much talent on the defensive line that it only seems like a matter of time before a breakthrough.
3. Rain on the way?
As of Tuesday, the forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain Saturday evening in Madison. If bad enough, such conditions could neutralize Ohio State’s talent advantage and could also impact the passing game. It doesn’t seem like too much of a concern for Meyer, though, who said Monday that he wasn’t troubled by the suggestion that J.T. Barrett’s accuracy dips when conditions aren’t ideal.
“That’s a concern, but both quarterbacks have to play in it,” he said. “J.T. is fine.”
4. Red zone execution
Ohio State is No. 1 in the country in red zone defense, but Wisconsin is No. 2 in that same category. Scoring in tight spaces could be at a premium given the talent on both defenses as well as the potential weather concerns. So which offense is better? That honor goes to Ohio State, which ranks 38th with 26 scores in 29 trips (21 touchdowns and five field goals). Wisconsin, on the other hand, is somewhat worse. The Badgers have entered the red zone 19 times and scored 15 times (12 touchdowns and three field goals), which puts them 97th nationally.
Whichever defense can either get a stop or turn the ball over in the red zone will give its team the upper hand in a game that could be decided in the margins.
5. Field position
I’ll split this into two key categories, penalties and punting. Ohio State is unquestionably awful from a penalty standpoint — despite the fact that Meyer hasn’t noticed — while Wisconsin is among the least-penalized teams in the country. The Badgers are No. 6 with just 3.6 penalties per game while OSU ranks 116th by averaging 8.8 penalties.
On the other hand, Ohio State is one of the best punting teams while Wisconsin is one of the worst. The Buckeyes rank second nationally with a net punting average of 46.71 yards. Wisconsin is on the other end of the spectrum, managing a net punting average of 33.91 yards to rank 116th out of 128 teams.
The starting position of drives and how easily drives are sustained will both be key, and whichever team can best overcome its weakness could gain the upper hand.