COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was a time when Ohio State could use the week of the Wisconsin game to prepare for other, bigger showdowns.
From 1948 to 1980, the Buckeyes were 32-1 against the Badgers. Most games were over before fans found their seats.
“I was here a long time ago, and it was not a rivalry,” said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, a graduate assistant with the Buckeyes in the 1980s. “But you have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with Coach (Barry) Alvarez, and then the following coaches have done a great job. So it’s one of, if not the best program in the Big Ten right now.”
Dave McClain, Alvarez and Bret Bielema brought respect and stability to Wisconsin — and gave a shot of balance to the Wisconsin-Ohio State series.
From 1981-87, the Badgers won six times in seven meetings — after winning just seven times in the previous 68 years.
Each side has been trading welts and bruises in equal measure in what has become one of the most anticipated games on their schedules.
Once again, a lot is riding on Saturday night’s meeting between the fourth-ranked Buckeyes and No. 23 Badgers. Chief among them is superiority in the Big Ten’s Leaders Division.
Here are five things to watch:
NOT BOWING TO THE KING: Wisconsin has won the last three Big Ten championship games. No wonder Meyer called it the “king” of the conference.
That rankles his own players, who went 12-0 last year including a dramatic overtime win over the Badgers, but were prevented from playing in the title game because of NCAA sanctions.
“When somebody takes what’s yours, you’re obviously not going to be happy about it,” cornerback Bradley Roby said of Wisconsin winning the championship in 2012. “The next time you see them it’s going to be a fight. That’s basically what it is, man. This game is going to be a fight.”
ROCK VS. HARD PLACE: Wisconsin is third in the nation in rushing at 350 yards a game, Ohio State is sixth at 311. If either dominates like it has, it’s going to be a long night for the other defense.
Both sides are steeling for a cage match in the trenches.
“Against teams like this you aren’t going to always run pretty,” Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Groy said. “When our backs are running physical and running hard, they are going to break some tackles. That’s when most of it counts, after first contact. Teams like this that have great defenses and tackle well, you break a couple tackles and something good is going to happen.”
AIR RAID: If the ground battle is fought on relatively even terms, the ability to pass will be paramount.
Wisconsin has thrown 99 passes all season; Ohio State threw 34 times in the first half of its last game. The Badgers have totaled six TD passes; the Buckeyes’ backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, had that many in the first two quarters last week.
Balancing that is the fact that Wisconsin hasn’t given up a scoring pass yet this year. The Buckeyes vow that stat won’t be the same on Sunday.
“I know they’re a good defense. And I know they’re real disciplined with their assignments and what they have to do,” Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spencer said. “But we’re really an explosive offense. So I can tell you right now that little record thing, that probably won’t stand too long.”
NIGHT MOVES: The game will be on national TV during prime time. Both teams are used to playing after dark.
“I love night games,” Roby said. “Everybody’s watching the best games. The place is electrified. Everybody’s there, people have all day to get drunk and stuff like that, so it’s going to be crazy.”
THE COACHES: Gary Andersen, in his first year with the Badgers, was an assistant under Meyer for a year at Utah. They remain best friends.
But Andersen pooh-poohs the importance of that.
“My take is that it doesn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “Obviously, Urban’s a good friend. I consider him a good friend. Who knows, maybe he doesn’t consider me a good friend.”
Then he laughed.