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November 16, 2012

Beat writer preview: Ohio State

BadgerBlitz.com's beat writer preview series continues today, just as the Badgers are about to wrap up their home slate with a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ben Axelrod is a contributor to BuckeyeGrove.com, and was gracious enough to give us the inside scoop on the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Beat writer preview: Ohio State

First of all, can you give us a quick overview of Ohio State's offense, and specifically what Braxton Miller brings to the table? What have the Buckeyes been good at this season, and where have they struggled?

Ben Axelrod: Entering this season, Urban Meyer had never coached an 1,000-yard rusher, and with 267 more yards over the next two weeks, running back Carlos Hyde could give him his second of just this season. That's kind of been the story of the Ohio State offense this season, which Meyer has admitted has been more run-heavy than he would like, but it also suits the current strength of the Buckeyes' personnel with a suddenly strong offensive line.

That all obviously starts with Miller, however, Meyer's first 1,000-yard rusher and a player who can make something out of nothing and has single-handily won games for the Buckeyes this season. But while he's certainly phenomenal with his feet, he's still not where Meyer would like him to be when it comes to being a passer, with the OSU coach admitting that he's been disappointed with the progress (or lack thereof) that he's made in that area.

Much like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes have shown the propensity to run over teams with some huge rushing numbers against the likes of Nebraska, Penn State, and Illinois, but if an opponent can force the Buckeyes to pass like Michigan State did in the first half of it meeting with OSU this season, that's certainly where the OSU offense has struggled this year.

Pretty much the same question, but for the defense this time. On the surface it seems like Ohio State's defense has struggled a bit this season. Is that an accurate assessment, and what do they have problems stopping?

BA: The defense did struggle in the first half of the season, giving up some big plays and certainly some eye-popping point totals, including the 49 points that it surrendered to Indiana. That was Zach Boren's first game at linebacker after converting from fullback, and he's certainly grown into the position, which is something that's been backed up by their results over the Buckeyes' past three games, where they've surrendered an average of just 14.3 points per game.

The weakness of the OSU defense early on was its linebackers, but with Etienne Sabino expected to return on Saturday, Ryan Shazier playing the best ball of his career, and Boren finally comfortable in his new role, the unit could be as healthy and as strong as its been on Saturday.

The good news for the Badgers is that there are still certainly some weaknesses that they can exploit in the OSU secondary, but the bad news is that the Buckeyes have done very well against the run, holding the only player in the Big Ten with more rushing yards than Montee Ball- Le'Veon Bell- to 45 yards on the ground in September.

We all know about Miller, but who are the other players that have stepped into new roles under Urban Meyer? Has his offensive scheme helped any players step into the spotlight?

BA: Hyde has certainly emerged as the Buckeyes No. 2 playmaker, putting up some big numbers against Nebraska and Illinois, and the OSU wide receiving corps is much stronger than it was a year ago, but as Meyer has mentioned, its nowhere close to where it needs to be.

Corey Brown has probably been the Buckeyes most consistent receiver, leading the team in catches and finally breaking free for a few big gains against the Illini, and as the Badgers know all too well, Devin Smith is still Ohio State's top deep threat.

Probably the one position that's emerged for the Buckeyes more than any other (besides quarterback) has been the team's tight ends, where Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are listed as the team's co-starters, and add a new dynamic to the OSU offense that it hasn't seen in years.

The Buckeyes have just two games left this season- if they beat Wisconsin and Michigan, how do you think the college football world will react to their potential undefeated season? Should the Buckeyes get the same kind of credibility and respect that other undefeated teams have gotten over the years?

BA: Given who they've played- there's a decent chance when all is said and done, that none of the Buckeyes' opponents finish the season in the Top 25- I don't think it's realistic to view Ohio State as AP National Title contenders, even if they are the only undefeated team in the nation, although there will certainly be a portion of OSU fans who claim it regardless.

I think that the Buckeyes' resume speaks for itself, and the pollsters agree, which is one of the reasons Alabama didn't fall past them after their loss to Texas A&M. OSU has played who its played, and it can't control what the other Big Ten teams around it does, but the biggest thing that the season will have done for OSU should it finish undefeated is provide great momentum for Meyer moving forward in his Ohio State career.

If anything, this year's Buckeyes' team reminds me of Meyer's 2004 Utah team, which finished the season undefeated, but wasn't considered for the national championship due to its lack of quality opponents. That still made for a special season and a memorable team, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Columbus who really views the Buckeyes as one of the top three teams in college football.

Finally, do you have a score prediction for the game? Will the Buckeyes claim sole possession of the Leaders Division Championship this season?

Up until the Illinois game, the Buckeyes made a habit of playing up or down to the level of their competition, and I expect that trend to continue on Saturday. OSU has struggled against the Indianas, UABs, and Cals on its scheduled, but has also played exceptionally well against the Nebraskas and Penn States.

Urban Meyer teams are 12-1 when coming off of bye weeks, so there stands reason to believe that the Buckeyes will be geared up to play on Saturday, and with no bowl game, this is really their Big Ten championship game, with Michigan being their bowl game.

I expect a close game (it's OSU-Wisconsin, of course it will be close), with Miller ultimately making a few more plays in the fourth quarter than the Badgers can handle.

Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 28.

Thanks again to Ben for his insight. You can get more Ohio State news from Ben by following him on Twitter.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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