When it’s having fun — which is pretty much all the time these days — it’s the embodiment of chaos, a storm in cleats. But what happens when the typhoon that is the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense runs into a ship that won’t stinking budge?
Because if you’re looking for one of the main reasons why the scoreboard against Ohio State since 2012 says Urban Meyer 3, Badgers 0, start with this:
Bucky giveaways vs. the Buckeyes — 6
Bucky takeaways — 0
“I think they obviously have really good athletes that, one-on-one, they can win those (battles),” Wisconsin outside linebacker Garret Dooley told Land of 10. “So that’s something we can make sure that we do in this upcoming game. We have to win our one-on-ones and we just have to force them to be uncomfortable and to put in positions that they’re not used to in order to get those takeaways.”
And there’s the rub. The second-ranked Buckeyes, who visit Camp Randall Stadium this Saturday night in the Big Ten’s biggest showdown of the weekend, are used to giving the discomfort rather than receiving it. Ohio State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) leads the league in turnover margin (plus-1.6 per game) and has given the ball away only five times all fall.
The eighth-ranked Badgers (4-1, 1-1) feast on opposition mistakes with 10 takeaways, tied for second in conference. Since 2013, in the 15 games in which Wisconsin has posted a negative turnover margin, its record is just 5-10. The record when that margin is even or into plus territory: 29-1.
“That’s something that’s going to help us out, too, is getting the ball back to our offense as much as possible and giving you the opportunity to score points,” said Dooley, who’s expected to again get a chunk of snaps at the starting outside linebacker slot vacated by Vince Biegel while the latter recovers from recent foot surgery. “I think, just like any other team, you have to put them in difficult scenarios where they have to be forced to make a play.”
Of course, the Buckeyes don’t often do the whole difficult thing, either. Ohio State has posted a minus turnover ratio just once this season — against Rutgers, in a game it won 58-0 anyway — and only five times in its last 18 contests.
“When you get that opportunity,” Badgers cornerback Sojourn Shelton said, “you’ve got to make them.”
And welcome to the chess game, one of several that figure to pop up along Monroe Street. The Badgers are averaging 3 sacks per game, third-best among Big Ten programs. Ohio State, thanks to a line rooted by senior center Pat Elflein, has given up just 3 sacks, period, for an average of less than one (0.6) per contest.
“It’s just being able to out-physical them at the line of scrimmage,” Dooley said. “Being able to control the line of scrimmage as well, helps us to stop the run and (helps us) get them into third-and-mediums, third-and-longs. Which is exactly what we want to do so we can pressure the quarterback.”
Easier said than done
Oh, yeah. The quarterback.
Listed at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds, Buckeyes signal-caller J.T. Barrett toys with defenders as if he’s 6-6, 252, a Weeble that refuses to go down. Barrett handles a collapsing pocket as if he’s got a GPS system wired to the back of his helmet, or some kind of innate spider-sense, routinely spinning free from prospective tackles and high-stepping out of attempts to corral his feet, all while steadfastly keeping his eyes downfield.
No. 16 is a defensive coordinator’s worst nightmare, the sort of magician who you have to plan for on two levels: Defending the play that’s designed, and then handling the inevitable improvisation that will follow it if said play somehow goes to hell in a handbasket. Barrett could take off, as he did versus Indiana last weekend (137 rushing yards), or simply buy himself more time to carve you up — more time to search out a target that inevitably squirts free.
“I think the (most mobile quarterback) we faced would’ve been LSU’s quarterback (Brandon Harris),” Dooley said. “He was able to run and get outside the pocket. But I think when it comes to playing a dual-threat quarterback, you have to be more disciplined. If you come off the edge, you can’t just come screaming in there. You have to break down when you get to the quarterback, or else he will make you miss.”
Against the Hoosiers, Barrett went for over 100 on the ground and a score. Against Bowling Green: 349 passing yards and 6 touchdown throws. How the devil do you account for a man who seems to be everywhere at once?
“That’s something we’re going to need to focus on is keeping that pocket so he can’t break the edge and scramble for 10-plus yards and win the battles 1-on-1,” Dooley said. “I think with coach (defensive coordinator Justin) Wilcox, in our first five games … he’s done a great job this season in drawing up schemes to (confuse) the quarterback, and that’s exactly what we’ll need to do this week.”
Third-and-long = a glimmer of hope?
And down and distance matter. On third-and-7-or-longer this fall, Barrett has run three times for 17 yards, an average of 5.67 per carry, gaining one first down. In those same spots, he’s 8-for-17 passing, averaging 13.5 yards per completion with 2 touchdowns, 1 interception and 3 first downs made.
For the Wisconsin D to work, it is going to have to first figure out a way to make Barrett work for it.
To that end, the Badgers have had wide receivers working on the scout team at quarterback this week to try — accent on the try — to replicate Barrett’s elusiveness and poise under fire.
“Basically, we’ll come crashing off the edge,” Dooley explained, “and he has to try to make us miss and we have to try to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Simulating it is one thing. Executing it? Something else. Whether you’re the Badgers or the ’85 Bears, it’s awfully tough to rattle what you can’t freaking touch.