2017 Big Ten title game: Breaking down Ohio State, Wisconsin units

2017 Big Ten title game: Breaking down Ohio State, Wisconsin units

A lot will be on the line when Wisconsin and Ohio State kick off Saturday in the seventh Big Ten title game.

The 12-0 Badgers look like a lock to secure their first playoff bid with a victory. The 10-2 Buckeyes will position themselves for a bid with a win—but will likely need some help from other teams.

These clubs met for the league title in 2014, with Ohio State taking a 59-0 win behind backup quarterback Cardale Jones on the way to the winning the national title. OSU may have a backup signal-caller again, which is one of many storylines in this game.

Here is a look at which team has the edge in each unit.

QUARTERBACK

Wisconsin: Alex Hornibrook has had his moments this year. The sophomore ranks 10th among Power Five quarterbacks in pass efficiency rating (155.9), completing 63.9 percent of his passes for 2,157 yards with 21 touchdowns. But picks have been an issue. His 13 interceptions rank second in the Big Ten. Hornibrook must avoid interceptions and needs to hit some passes down field to open room for a strong rushing game.

Ohio State: The status of J.T. Barrett is unknown after he hurt a knee last week. If he can’t go, redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins will be the man. Barrett is an all-time great. The captain holds, among others, school records for passing yards (9,109) and Big Ten records for TDs responsible for (142) and touchdown passes (102). Haskins is a redshirt freshman who took over last week and sealed the deal in a win at Michigan. But would he ready for this stage?

EDGE: Ohio State–if Barrett plays.

***

RECEIVERS

Wisconsin: The Badgers boast one of the best sets of wideouts they’ve had in years. Even with Jazz Peavy and Quintez Cephus, the team’s leading receiver, out, this unit hasn’t skipped a beat. Sophomore A.J. Taylor, true freshman Danny Davis and redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor have been revelations. And Troy Fumagalli is one of the nation’s top tight ends.

Ohio State: This unit has a core base of six wide receivers who divide reps and all of whom have caught at least 17 passes with at least two touchdown grabs. K.J. Hill leads the way, pacing the team with 51 receptions and is second with 519 receiving yards. Parris Campbell tops the team in reception yardage (530) while ranking second with 38 receptions. Don’t sleep on Johnnie Dixon, either, who has turned eight of his 17 receptions into touchdowns. Marcus Baugh is an underrated tight end who has 22 receptions for 243 yards and five touchdowns.

EDGE: Even

***

RUNNING BACKS

Wisconsin: Per usual, this is a productive group led by freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor, who leads the Big Ten and ranks third in the nation in rushing, averaging 150.5 yards per game. Taylor has 1,806 yards and needs 120 yards to surpass ex-Oklahoma star Adrian Peterson at the top of the FBS freshman rushing list.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes are 13th nationally in rushing and first in the Big Ten at 250.3 yards per game. True freshman J.K. Dobbins is the fourth Ohio State freshman to top 1,000 yards rushing (1,190). He forms a nice tandem with Mike Weber, who has 602 yards rushing, and has really found his groove down the stretch.

EDGE: Even

***

OFFENSIVE LINE

Wisconsin: After a few unsettled years, the Badger front is back to its vintage ways. This is a physical unit which includes a starting five comprised of two juniors (LT Michael Deiter and RG Beau Benzschawel), two sophomores (LG Jon Dietzen and RT David Edwards) and a redshirt freshman (C Tyler Biadasz). UW has allowed a Big Ten-low 17 sacks.

Ohio State: This front had some questions as the season dawned but has come together nicely. But this is the first time in Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State that the same five offensive linemen who started Game 1 of a season won’t start the final game of the season. The quartet of C Billy Price, LT Jamarco Jones, LG Michael Jordan and RT Isaiah Prince has now started 25 consecutive games. Price has started a school-record 53 consecutive games.

EDGE: Wisconsin

***

DEFENSIVE LINE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have spent more time in opponents’ backfields this season, racking up 37.0 sacks to lead the Big Ten and rank tied for sixth nationally. Olive Sagapolu is an anchor in the middle. He is flanked by underrated players in Alec James and Conor Sheehy. This group helps allow a talented set of linebackers excel.

Ohio State: This unit features, depth, talent, experience and 116 combined career starts led by Tyquan Lewis’ 33 and Sam Hubbard and Dre’mont Jones’ 21 apiece. And then there’s sophomore standout Nick Bosa. Add it all up, and there are as many as dozen different players along the line who rotate in for a defense that ranks 10th nationally with 7.9 TFLs per game and fourth with 401 lost yards.

EDGE: Ohio State

***

LINEBACKERS

Wisconsin: The Badgers led the nation in scoring defense in 2015 (13.7 ppg), ranked fourth in that category in 2016 (15.6 ppg) and rank second this season (12.0 ppg). A big reason for that is the linebackers. Ryan Connelly, Andrew Van Ginkel, T.J. Edwards and Garrett Dooley are a handful for a unit that has exceled even without Jack Cichy and Chris Orr.

Ohio State: Plenty of smarts and athletic ability on this group. Jerome Baker leads this unit with 51 tackles to rank third on the team. Team captain Chris Worley, despite missing three games with a foot injury, is fourth with 49 stops. Redshirt freshman Tuf Borland is fifth with 45 tackles. He has a bright future.

EDGE: Wisconsin

***

SECONDARY

Wisconsin: This is a strong unit that ranks No. 1 nationally in passing-efficiency defense, holding opponents to a rating of just 94.2. Alabama (98.9) is the only other FBS team with an opponent rating of less than 100. Junior CB Nick Nelson is leading the way with a nation-leading 20 pass breakups, the best single-season total in UW history. Joe Ferguson is a playmaker at safety.

Ohio State: Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette are first-year starters at corner who have combined for 22 passes defended, including three interceptions. Ward is the star. He has 14 passes defended – 13 PBUs and one interception – and is tied for third in the Big Ten with 1.2 per game. Safety Damon Webb is the veteran in the secondary with 25 consecutive starts.

EDGE: Even

***

SPECIAL TEAMS

Wisconsin: Kicker Rafael Gaglianone is 12-for-14 on field-goal attempts this season. Gaglianone, who missed all but three games last season due to injury, has converted 22 of his last 25 field-goal attempts, dating back to the 2015 Holiday Bowl. Nick Nelson can go the distance on punt returns.

Ohio State: Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 30-for-41 in his career in field goals, including 14-of-17 this year. He has smashed the Big Ten record for consecutive extra points, nailing 171 consecutively. Drue Chrisman is No. 2 in the Big Ten in punting (43.7). Parris Campbell is a threat on kickoff returns.

EDGE: Even

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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