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Big Ten Championship Game Preview: OSU more than just J.T. Barrett

I’ll admit it, the thought crossed my mind as I saw Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett lying on the turf.

“This changes everything.”

There was no official prognosis at the time, but as time dragged on, it became very clear that Barrett wasn’t going to get up.

Kickoff of Wisconsin’s showdown with arch-rival Minnesota was still roughly an hour away, but knowing Ohio State would have to overcome another injury to a star quarterback completely changed the dynamic of a potential clash between the Badgers and Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Ohio State is a hell of a football team, regardless of who is under center. But there is no debating that being down to a third-string quarterback puts the Buckeyes at a disadvantage.

Call it selfish. Call it inconsiderate or insensitive. Call it whatever you want, but that’s what was going through my head.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel awful for Barrett. That kid has done a tremendous job filling in for Braxton Miller and it’s a shame that he won’t get the opportunity to finish what he had started. By no means was I watching the game hoping for key Ohio State players to suffer injuries, one would be pretty heartless to take such an approach.

The fact of the matter is: Barrett is done for the year with a fractured ankle and both teams will have to make adjustments accordingly before heading to Indianapolis.

Once the Badgers took care of business against the best Minnesota squad to set foot on Camp Randall’s hallowed grounds in years, another feeling came to mind: “Here we go again.”

On Sunday, Wisconsin opened as three-point favorites over OSU. There’s not a chance Bucky is getting that kind of love if Barrett is calling signals.

The stage is once again set.

I’ve seen this story before, we all have. One way or another, Wisconsin finds its way to the title game and is one, solid, 60-minute performance away from a trip to a big-time bowl game.

In a way, it’s the beauty of college football. Proponents of the game point this out all the time. A 12-game regular season with the possibility of a conference championship game maximizes the importance of every contest.

I don’t mind the narrative. I just don’t care for where it is headed. The Badgers haven’t won a bowl game since the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl. That story line will be beat to death in the coming weeks regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game, but I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge the drought.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Barrett’s absence doesn’t make the Buckeyes a pushover. Saturday will be a challenge in and of itself.

To Wisconsin’s credit, they have put their best foot forth when playing for the conference crown. The 70-31 thrashing of Nebraska 2012 in was especially impressive a dominating performance for a team that limped into the game with a 7-5 record.

This Badgers team has the feel of that squad.

It is strange to say that considering this year’s club is on a seven-game winning streak. They boast a record of 10-2, 7-1 in conference. They aren’t backing into Saturday’s game in Indy, they earned the berth.

However, the past few weeks have made me uncomfortable being bullish on the Badgers. Yes, it faced some quality opponents in the last three games, but Wisconsin has spent a lot of time looking like its own worst enemy during that stretch.

Ohio State is the type of team who will exploit those weaknesses.

Ball protection has become an issue. The Badgers fumbled eight times in the last three games, losing five of them. One has to go back to Nov. 1, a 37-0 win over Rutgers, to find the last time UW didn’t put the pigskin on the turf.

The Buckeyes have 234 points off turnovers this year. If Wisconsin can’t hang on to the ball on Saturday, it could be a long night.

Ohio State has allowed four individuals to rush for over 100 yards this season, but the Buckeyes emerged victorious in all four of those games.

OSU allows 145.6 yards per game on the ground, but the rushing game typically has to be set up by the pass. In the four games the Buckeyes allowed a 100-yard rusher, the opposing team averaged 24 passes per game. Wisconsin comes into Saturday’s tilt averaging 21 passing attempts per game, but are averaging just 16.6 attempts over the last three weeks.

Melvin Gordon will have chances to get his yards, but the Badgers are going to need some semblance of a passing game in order to turn him loose.

Say what you want about Joel Stave, but Wisconsin is going to need him on Saturday. The redshirt junior is completing 58.1 percent of his passes and has been frustrating at times. However, he has just four interceptions on the year.

The Buckeyes are tied with Michigan for the conference lead in sacks, with 37. There will be OSU jerseys in that backfield at some point, there’s no way around it.

Stave makes fairly sound decisions, but is often unable to execute. He is going to have to make some plays to prevent Ohio State from being able to dial up blitzes at will.

Speaking of quarterbacks, this whole 2-QB thing is wearing thin. The Badgers have become increasingly more predictable when Tanner McEvoy is on the field. It has come to point where defenses are able to key in on the run as soon as McEvoy is inserted.

I get it, McEvoy’s legs are his best asset but, just like in the Wildcat Offense, success with McEvoy in the game is predicated on the ability to throw the ball on occasion, if only just for show.

Having disappeared after the Illinois game, the slow-start virus has returned and is once again haunting Wisconsin. In the last two home games, the Badgers have put themselves in a hole early only to come out of it later. While the Badgers held the lead during the first half of their game with Iowa, they weren’t able to gain a firm upper hand and it almost came back to bite them.

Punting has been embarrassing. For heaven’s sake, it’s gotten so bad that they have even trotted quarterback Bart Houston, a highly-touted recruit in his day, out there to try and make something happen. Yet another reason a slow start must be avoided. It doesn’t matter if UW is facing a team on QB No. 3. If the Buckeyes are consistently being given a short field, it’s going to show up in the box score.

Despite all those troublesome areas, the Badgers still have a chance to upend Ohio State. That’s what makes this team frustrating and lovable at the same time, much like the 2012 team. That team had flaws too (most teams do). But they also have plenty going for them. You just get that feeling that they can run with just about anyone for 60 minutes.

This team has the opportunity to change the ending to this all-too familiar tale. They win the conference title and put an end to this nonsense of dropping six of the last seven bowl games.  But will they?

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