Postseason implications at play against Ohio State

BY foxsports • September 27, 2013

Logically speaking, every Big Ten football game counts the same in the standings. It is the totality of eight games that ultimately determines a team's postseason fate, not one in late September before most matchups have even been played.

But deep in the gut, where logic and reason can sometimes become muddled, the notion percolates that some games mean more on the schedule than others. Some games feature teams with such competitive history and success that the outcome is sure to swing the standings for something worth more than one contest. 

Saturday represents one of those games. 

When No. 23 Wisconsin (3-1) and No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) meet at 7 p.m. CT at The Horseshoe, an early spot to secure the Leaders Division will be on the line. The winner will have the inside track to the Big Ten championship, essentially with a two-game lead on the loser.

Yes, logic suggests Illinois, Purdue and Indiana have not been mathematically eliminated. But let's get real here. Wisconsin and Ohio State have earned at least a share of the Big Ten crown in each of the past eight seasons, and both teams appear in line to make a run at a ninth.

Badgers players recognize the potential impact of Saturday's game, though you won't hear them breaking down standings possibilities.

"We're a smart group," Badgers linebacker Chris Borland said. "We understand the gravity of this game. We try as hard as we can every play, every Saturday, so there's nothing that’s going to change. We understand how important it is."

With Penn State still ineligible for postseason play under NCAA rules, five teams are competing for the Leaders Division crown in the final season of this divisional format. It is, however, likely a two-team race between Wisconsin and Ohio State. 

Illinois has lost 14 consecutive Big Ten games, Indiana has lost 14 of its last 16 conference games and Purdue already suffered a 41-10 defeat against Wisconsin last week.

"We know this game is going to mean a lot," Badgers running back James White said. "That doesn't mean anybody has to go out there and try to be Superman. Everybody has to go out there and play their game and play physical for four quarters."

Wisconsin and Ohio State have built a strong recent history of tough games against the other. In 2010, Wisconsin took down top-ranked Ohio State 31-18 in Madison, and students stormed the field with delight.

Ohio State edged Wisconsin 33-29 in 2011 on quarterback Braxton Miller's last-minute 40-yard touchdown pass in Columbus. A year ago, the Buckeyes toppled the Badgers 21-14 in overtime in Madison to preserve an undefeated season under coach Urban Meyer.

Meyer served as a tight ends coach at Ohio State in 1986 and a wide receivers coach there in 1987, when Wisconsin was considered nothing more than a below-average football program. But times began to change when Barry Alvarez took over the program in the 1990s, and it has developed into one of the more marquee Big Ten annual matchups.

"I was here a long time ago and it was not a rivalry," Meyer said. "You have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with coach Alvarez and then the following coaches have done a great job doing it. So it's one of, if not the best program in the Big Ten right now, and because of that, it's become a very good rivalry."

Saturday is expected to mark the return of Miller, who missed the past two weeks with a knee injury. Meyer announced Wednesday that Miller would "probably start" after he had a solid, pain-free practice. 

Miller, a junior, has been the team's starter since his freshman season and finished fifth in last year's Heisman Trophy voting. He is 13 yards shy of becoming Ohio State's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks and ranks 10th on OSU's career passing yards list.

But backup Kenny Guiton set a school record with 12 touchdown passes over a three-game span in Miller's absence, creating the possibility both could be used against Wisconsin.

Members of Wisconsin's defense say they have not spent the week preparing any differently.

"I'm not going to say they're the same quarterback, but they do a lot of the same things," Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward said. "They can both run around the field and make plays with their legs. They can both throw the ball down the field. Whether one throws the ball a little bit better than the other, it doesn't matter. They run the same plays, and both of those guys are super talented."

While Miller takes center stage for Ohio State's offense, Badgers running back Melvin Gordon will step into the primetime spotlight for a national audience. Gordon, a redshirt sophomore, leads the country in rushing yards per game (156.0) and has emerged as a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman Trophy through four weeks.

Still, Gordon believes he has much to prove. A year ago, he carried the ball just once for minus-one yard against Ohio State, while Badgers standout Montee Ball took 39 carries.

"It was definitely tough for me," Gordon said. "I'm not going to lie. It was hard for me getting one carry for negative yards. I just wanted to get out there so bad because I wanted to get used to how they play. I knew they were a good team last year, even this year. I wanted to get adjusted to how fast they are and I really didn’t get a chance to get that first hand. So I'm excited to come out Saturday and play these guys."

Given what is at stake for both teams, the feeling is mutual.

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