With a new quarterback, an almost entirely new offensive line and the loss of three talented senior receivers, Ohio State’s passing game was expected to have some growing pains this season.
Through seven games, it’s been all growth and little pain.
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Justin Fields has thrown for 18 touchdowns with only one interception. The line has generally given Fields plenty of time to throw. Ohio State’s receivers have been sure-handed and dangerous after the catch.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes’ passing game will face its biggest test. As unstoppable as Ohio State has been, Wisconsin’s pass defense has been just as good. The Badgers rank first nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game (135.4) and are also ranked first in pass defense efficiency.
Wisconsin has given up only 4.6 yards per pass attempt. Ohio State gains an average of 9.1 yards per attempt.
Something’s got to give.
“We know statistically they’re No. 1 in pass defense and No. 1 in scoring defense,” Ohio State senior receiver K.J. Hill said. “We have to take a different approach this week. We know this is not going to be a pushover game. We have to step up to the challenge.”
Wisconsin starts a junior, two sophomores and a redshirt freshman in its secondary, but their inexperience hasn’t cost them. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonard is considered one of the best in the business.
“In the back end, I think they're very, very well-coached,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Coach Leonhard does a really good job of their leverage, the way they drive on things, their pad matching. A combination of scheme, toughness and execution.
“They're not afraid to get up in your mug and challenge you, disrupt the route. When they get in there and they get a shot on you, they don't miss."
Hill said he regards Wisconsin’s defense as the most aggressive the Buckeyes have played.
As is the case with any top unit, Wisconsin’s pass defense begins with its pass rush. The Badgers play a 3-4, and linebackers Chris Orr and Zach Baun lead the way in that phase. Orr has eight sacks and Baun has 6½. Baun has 11 tackles for loss in all.
“The pass rush is really good,” Day said. “Baun coming off the edge is dynamite. He's really good. (But) he's not the only one.”
Ohio State will have to be balanced offensively because Wisconsin’s run defense is also ranked first nationally. The Badgers are giving up only 2.2 yards per carry.
“Yeah, they do a lot of things on defense,” Fields said. “But the coaches have taught us well. We feel like we have a pretty good feel of what they're going to do. But especially in as big a game as this is going to be, they’re definitely going to mix in some new things.”
Then again, the Badgers haven’t faced an offense even remotely as productive as Ohio State’s. None of their opponents rank in the top 50 in total offense.
“Obviously, they’re a talented group,” Leonhard told Wisconsin reporters. “As a coordinator, you always try to find the fastest way to lose and focus on that. Unfortunately, this week, they have multiple options that fit that category.”
So it’s clear that each team has plenty of respect for the other. On Saturday, one of them will be revealed to not be as dominating as its gaudy statistics indicate.
“I think it's always a good benchmark to figure out where you're at,” Day said. “This is the No. 1 defense in the country. We consider ourselves to be one of the top offenses in the country. Let’s find out where we're at.”