Finally, a game with genuine suspense.
Sure, Ohio State has said all the right things before its previous seven games. The Buckeyes treat every opponent with respect, knowing that any slip-up could ruin their aspirations.
But until now, no opponent posed a serious challenge to the third-ranked Buckeyes (7-0). Cincinnati didn’t have the overall talent. Michigan State and Northwestern didn’t have the offense.
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Now comes Wisconsin, a perennial Big Ten power strong on both sides of the ball. The Badgers feature perhaps the country’s top running back in Jonathan Taylor. They have the No. 1-ranked defense nationally.
If not for last week’s inexplicable upset to Illinois, Wisconsin (6-1) probably would be ranked No. 6 instead of No. 13. The Buckeyes watched that game after playing a week ago Friday. They are bracing for an extra-motivated Badgers team.
“We know what we’re getting into this week,” receiver K.J. Hill said.
As much as the Buckeyes’ starters have enjoyed being able to rest during the fourth quarter, they are eager for a real test.
“There’s always that element because you work so hard throughout the week,” defensive tackle Robert Landers said. “The amount of time in the film room, the amount of time with recovery, the amount of time and banging that we put on our body in practice to get to the game and able to compete at a high level, of course you yearn for that competitiveness.”
The Buckeyes have won their last six games against Wisconsin. All were close games except for the stunning 59-0 rout in the 2014 Big Ten championship game.
There’s little mystery with Wisconsin. They want to use their offensive line to grind down opponents in front of Taylor. Jack Coan appears to be a notch above the caretaker that most recent Badgers quarterbacks have been.
On defense, Wisconsin has four shutouts, though Central Michigan (ranked 53rd) is the only opponent whose offense ranks in the top 79 nationally. The Buckeyes, with quarterback Justin Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins, talented receivers and a dominating offensive line, is in a different class than anyone the Badgers have played.
“We've had this game marked since the end of last season,” offensive right tackle Branden Bowen said. “We knew this was going to be a test, and we’re excited for it.”
Ohio State is a 14-point favorite, the smallest point spread of the year for the Buckeyes.
“This is by far the biggest challenge we've had — both sides of the ball,” coach Ryan Day said Thursday. “It’s one of the better offenses and the best defense in the country. We'll be challenged in all areas.
“The same thing with coaches. We're being challenged, and so when you wake up every morning, the competitor in you (says) you’ve got to work and do a better job than they do.”
As impressive as Ohio State has been, the one lingering question has been how the Buckeyes would respond when true adversity hits. Wisconsin faced it for the first time last week and cracked.
The Buckeyes believe their intense training, both physically and mentally, has prepared them for a game like this.
“This is why you come here — this type of environment, a big game like this," Landers said. "The camera’s on, the lights are on. It’s exciting. We’re ready to see how we play.”