The parallels between this year’s Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis and 2014 are striking.
No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 8 Ohio State are not only playing for the conference title again this Saturday, but both have a chance to make the College Football Playoff.
Each team has a standout running back. This year, both happen to be freshmen.
And Ohio State enters the game with uncertainty at quarterback because of an injury to J.T. Barrett, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Sunday but is expected to play.
Back in 2014, Barrett suffered a broken ankle in the final regular-season game against Michigan and Cardale Jones came off the bench to famously lead the Buckeyes’ national championship run that began with a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
Barrett is a senior now, and he also was hurt in the regular-season finale against Michigan, a 31-20 Ohio State victory. This time around, Barrett is considered probable against Wisconsin.
There’s a possibility that Ohio State might need to call on redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins if Barrett is unable to go. Haskins came in at Michigan during the third quarter last Saturday and led Ohio State’s fourth-quarter comeback that resulted in its sixth straight win in the rivalry game.
It all sounds familiar. And yet the coaches and the players who are still around insist that past history — which includes Ohio State’s 30-23 victory at Wisconsin a year ago in the teams’ last meeting — has nothing to do with the present.
“It’s a different year and a different team,” said Ohio State center Billy Price, who started the 2014 game.
Paul Chryst was not the head coach in 2014 when Wisconsin endured the beat down by Ohio State in the championship game, but he’s obviously familiar with what happened.
“I think you always draw from all your experiences,” Chryst said. “This game is about these two teams this year. Both teams earned the right to play in this game and obviously to play for a Big Ten championship is a big deal.
“It’s about this year, this moment.”
The Badgers (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) enter the contest (8 p.m. ET on Fox) against the Buckeyes (10-2, 8-1) with an unblemished record and yet there are plenty of skeptics who dismiss Wisconsin’s postseason chances. They say the Big Ten West Division was subpar and the schedule was weak.
“I don’t want us to get caught up in too much of that,” Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “Just play our game. I feel like that’s why we’ve been able to play so well up to this point. Nobody is worried about what the world thinks about us. We just worry about who is in that locker room. We’ve just got to keep doing that.”
Wisconsin offensive tackle Michael Deiter said, “There’s definitely a lot riding on it. Most importantly is winning the Big Ten. That is something we want to do. All the other stuff you definitely notice it, but there is no reason to put a ton of thought into it. All we want to do is win the Big Ten.”
The Badgers’ best chance to win Saturday night revolves around standout freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who has run behind a massive offensive line for 1,806 yards and leads the Big Ten in rushing, just as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon did in 2014.
Wisconsin also will try to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Its defense leads the Big Ten in fewest rushing yards (80.5), total yards (236.9) and points (12.0) allowed per game.
“They’re — I can’t tell you the exact ranking — but I think they’re No. 1 in everything,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “And very good skilled athletes. … Giant offensive linemen in Wisconsin. And obviously a very good challenge against an elite running back.”
No Big Ten team has made more trips to the championship game than the Badgers’ five, including three of the past four years.
“We’re going to approach it the same way we have all year and just go out there and try to score one more point than the team against us,” Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do against Ohio State. We don’t need to change our formula. It’s been working all year.”
Ohio State opened the week as a 6.5-point favorite. The Buckeyes are 1-1 in Big Ten title games, winning it in 2014.
The obvious question mark surrounding Ohio State leading up to the game will be the status of Barrett, the four-year starter who last Saturday tied Art Schlichter’s school record for quarterbacks with 36 wins.
The previously undisclosed cartilage damage in Barrett’s right knee, aggravated when it was bumped on the sideline at Michigan while warming up, is apparently something he has dealt with all year.
But up until that point it hadn’t affected him on the field. Barrett leads the Big Ten in touchdown passes with 33 and is second in total offense. Along the way he has broken numerous school and Big Ten records.
If Barrett is unable to play or is limited, Haskins proved at Michigan that he is ready to take the reins.
“Whoever’s out there I feel confident,” Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin said. “I know the competitor J.T. is that he’s going to do whatever it takes to play in this game.”
Barrett is a big part of Ohio State’s offense, which leads the Big Ten in most statistical categories. But it is built around a strong running game led by two capable backs.
Freshman J.K. Dobbins is second in the Big Ten behind Taylor in rushing with 1,190 yards and sophomore Mike Weber has run equally as well late in the season.
Defensively, Ohio State is strong up front with its “rushmen” package that will attempt to get after Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (21 touchdowns, 13 interceptions) and slow down Taylor.
“This is going to be a great challenge for us as a defense,” Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley said. “It’s going to be a battle.
“You can’t really worry about the playoffs. Our message has been beat Wisconsin. Our message has been do what you can to win the game that week.”