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September 23, 2013Follow @JohnVeldhuis
MADISON, Wis. - Gary Andersen and the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers won't want to admit it, but their chances of repeating as Big Ten Champions for a fourth-straight season will likely turn on 60 minutes of football against the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes. The Badgers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) will head out on the road to Columbus, Ohio, this weekend for what is probably the biggest game in this year's chase for the Leaders Division crown.
The Buckeyes (4-0, 0-0) are coming off a 76-0 win over Florida A&M last weekend, where backup quarterback Kenny Guiton threw for 215 yards and six touchdowns against the overmatched Rattlers. But head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have a decision to make now that Braxton Miller has been cleared to re-join the team. It's not a full-blown quarterback controversy, but it's still a situation that needs a quick resolution.
Ohio State's offense hasn't skipped a beat since Miller went down with a knee injury against San Diego State, with Guiton completing 64-of-94 passes for 643 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last three games. But Meyer said Monday that as tempting as it is to go with the hot hand against Wisconsin this weekend, Miller will still start for the Buckeyes "if he has a good week of practice."
As for Andersen and the Badgers, it doesn't sounds like they're focused on which quarterback will be under center for the Buckeyes this week.
"The offense, with either quarterback it doesn't change," Andersen said Monday at his weekly press conference. "Either quarterback can run the offense and has won a lot of football games."
"I don't think it matters, whoever's in there. One guy will do some things better than the other, but it's still the same offense. It doesn't change our approach."
And for what it's worth, the Badgers had a lot of success containing Miller in their 21-14 overtime loss to the Buckeyes last season. The Badgers held Miller to just 97 yards on 10-of-18 passing, and kept him from making big plays with his legs, too. Miller rushed 23 times for 48 yards last season against the Badgers, which they attribute to a subtle but important personnel change from last season's game that kept Miller from scrambling.
"We did something different where we took some lighter, faster guys and put them in to keep him in the pocket," senior nose guard Beau Allen said Monday. "I thought that kind of rattled him, and then when he did escape the pocket they did a great job of tracking him down."
But Miller and the Buckeyes have a more diverse set of offensive weapons this year than they did for last year's game. Ohio State's backfield has gotten a lot more crowded now that Carlos Hyde is back from a three-game suspension, and the Buckeyes have three players with 10 or more catches already this season, including star receiver Devin Smith, who caught a game-winning touchdown pass against the Badgers in 2011.
But if the Badgers want to beat the Buckeyes on the road for the first time since 2004, their chances will likely live and die on containing Miller (or Guiton, if he should start.)
"You've got to contain [Miller], you can't let him have free reign," Andersen said. "The quarterback run is going to be there- how much they run him now with the injury they've had, who knows? But it is still part of their offense. You've got to also understand that they're going to get theirs. They're going to make big plays- the key is how you react to the next play."
The winning team from Saturday's game will find itself squarely in the diver's seat for a Leaders Division title, and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game. Wisconsin's loss to Arizona State may have left other season goals on the table, but a loss to Ohio State would make their path to another Big Ten title much more difficult.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.