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This has all the makings of a classic Big Ten ground grudge match as one of the nation’s best defenses takes on a perennially strong Wisconsin running game that features a Heisman Trophy candidate in Jonathan Taylor.
There won’t be any clouds of dust because the Ohio Stadium surface has been artificial since 2007, but three yards could be hard to come by.
“I know this is going to be the biggest challenge of the year,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It's a major challenge for the guys up front, the front seven, and the secondary. These guys are big, strong, physical. They're going to try to move us off the ball. Obviously Taylor is as good as there is in the country.
“We’ll find out after Saturday, find out where we're at with this thing. I think we've done a good job of defeating blocks, winning the line of scrimmage. This will be the ultimate test when you play Wisconsin.”
Ironically both teams are coming off performances that could be considered sub-par, at least for them.
While losing 24-23 at Illinois last Saturday, Wisconsin ran for 156 yards, the second-fewest the Badgers have picked up this season.
One night earlier in a 52-3 Ohio State win, Northwestern ran for 157 yards, the second-most the Buckeyes have allowed this season.
“That is not acceptable,” said defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who attributed a handful of Wildcat runs for double-digit yardage to a number of little things. “We all know as a defense we don’t want to give up yardage like that on the run. That’s not our deal. That’s something that we will definitely correct and they know that.
“I don’t care if they rush for 60 attempts, we have goals. I’m not gonna say what those goals are because I don’t want it on somebody’s bulletin board, but I do know the backbone of anybody’s defense is stopping the run, and our kids have really done a great job of that and will continue to.”
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Tuf Borland, the middle linebacker who was part of an Ohio State defensive effort that allowed only 60 yards in the ground in the last meeting between the teams in the 2017 Big Ten championship game, confirmed the players felt the need to improve after last week.
“Yeah no doubt,” he said. “What, they had 199, 200 or something yards like that and I think 150 of them were though the run, so there's definitely some things we have to clean up."
Borland had seven stops in the title tilt between the Buckeyes and Badgers, who got only 41 yards on 15 carries that night in Indianapolis.
The 5-foot-11, 219-pound Taylor averaged only 2.7 yards per carry in that game, but for his career the New Jersey native is at 6.7.
Taylor will enter Saturday with 5,128 career rushing yards (19th all time nationally), and Borland said his patience stands out.
“A lot of times you see guys thinking the balls is declaring and they jump out of their gaps and he ends up finding that crease,” Borland said. "So I think (our key is) being a real disciplined, gap-oriented defense. Playing through our gap."
From an Ohio State perspective, could the little mistakes at Northwestern have popped up at just the right time? Perhaps the Wildcats did the Buckeye coaching staff a favor by exposing a few flaws just before a more significant test?
Day expects Wisconsin’s loss to have that effect on the Badgers.
"I think there are always issues on film. It's really the job of the coaching staff and leaders to make sure that we address those issues. There were issues in the Northwestern game. Can we address those issues and get better from those issues and understand and be open to criticism and be self-reflective in order to get those issues addressed?” Day said.
“Sometimes after a loss, they're a little bit more attentive to those things, something that we've been hammering with our guys. Let's not let it take a loss for us to understand issues because they're always there on film. That's what Sundays are for. Once we have our victory meal, we turn onto the next team.”