Four games into its regular season, Ohio State remains a bit of a mystery.
The offense has hummed, particularly early in games. But is it because the Buckeyes have leaped dramatically forward in their second year in coach Urban Meyer’s system? Or is it more a reflection of the porous defenses they have faced?
The inexperienced defense has not looked overmatched, with the exception of some hiccups against California. Again, is that a reflection of the competition?
Wisconsin will pose few mysteries tonight in the Buckeyes’ Big Ten opener. As a result, Ohio State’s legitimacy as a national championship contender can be discerned much more by its performance against the Badgers than by anything seen during its nonconference games.
In a very real sense, then, Ohio State’s season begins tonight.
“Oh yes, absolutely,” center Corey Linsley said. “It starts all over for us this weekend.”
Linsley said that left tackle Jack Mewhort told him on Sunday, “I’m ready to play somebody this week.”
“We played somebody against Cal, and these (other) opponents have been playing hard, but it’s not like playing a Big Ten game,” Linsley said. “It’ll never be. It could never be.
“The Big Ten season has its own feel to it. It’s colder outside. Practices are a little bit longer, preparations a little more intense. Everything is amped up a little bit because it’s conference play. It’s nice to get back to that mentality.”
That it’s Wisconsin adds to the intensity. Sure, natural antagonist Bret Bielema is at Arkansas now, but new Badgers coach Gary Andersen is a protégé and friend of Meyer’s.
But the Badgers have gone to the past three Rose Bowls, and Meyer referred to them as the “king” of the Big Ten.
That’s partly giving Wisconsin the respect it’s due. It’s also a motivational ploy. Ohio State players don’t have to be told that Wisconsin was able to win the Big Ten championship last year only because the Buckeyes were ineligible.
“When somebody takes what’s yours, you’re obviously not going to be happy about it,” Roby said. “The next time you see them, it’s going to be a fight. Basically that’s what this is. This game is going to be a fight.”
Even with the coaching change, Wisconsin remains Wisconsin, at least on offense. It will run the ball and run the ball some more. Melvin Gordon is the nation’s leading rusher with 624 yards, and he is averaging an astounding 11.8 yards per carry.
“We’re trying to prepare ourselves for them to give us their best punch,” defensive end Noah Spence said. “It’s going to be like a dogfight.”
If Ohio State is to prevail, players such as Spence, who were spot players last year, have to be up to the challenge.
“It’s a specific type of football they play,” Roby said. “We’re used to it. We’re going to be ready. It’s smash-mouth football.”
The Buckeyes are a spread team, but they want to use a power run game from that formation. With running back Carlos Hyde back for his second game, and quarterback Braxton Miller presumably healthy, this will be the first time that Ohio State’s offense will have all of its key players available.
The Buckeyes played perhaps their most impressive game last year in their only home primetime game, a 63-38 rout of Nebraska. The atmosphere is likely to be just as charged for the Badgers.
“This is the first very big game that we have,” said Roby said, who considered heading to the NFL before deciding to return. “When you open the Big Ten with a game like this, so much is at stake. You can’t lose the very first Big Ten game. This is definitely one of the games I came back for. Prime-time, ABC, night game, nobody else playing. Why not? So let’s have fun.”