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October 16, 2010MADISON -- Top-ranked Ohio State is in town, and they brought ESPN College GameDay along with them. For the third straight time dating back to 2003, the Buckeyes and Badgers will play under the lights at Camp Randall Stadium.
The stage has been set, and all eyes are on Madison tonight. Only one question remains: Will 18th-ranked Wisconsin raise to the occasion, or crumble under the pressure?
Before things kick off at Camp Randall tonight, BadgerBlitz.com offers a number of things to watch during today's game, as well as a prediction.
1. Strength versus strength
Wisconsin has one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Ohio State has gotten similar recognition for its front four on defense. When it comes down to it, the winner in the trenches will likely be the winner on the scoreboard as well.
Last year, Cameron Heyward and the Buckeyes got the best of John Moffitt, Gabe Carimi and UW offense. Six times OSU got through to sack quarterback Scott Tolzien. Two more times, the Ohio State pressure in the back field forced bad throws from Tolzien, which resulted in pick sixes.
If Moffitt, Carimi and Peter Konz can limit the effectiveness of Heyward, Brian Rolle and the Buckeyes defense, it will go a long way toward a Wisconsin victory. If not, Tolzien and the Badgers will be in for a long night.
2. Pryor focus
Two of the most impressive drives of Terrelle Pryor's career have come against the Badgers. The last thing J.J. Watt and the Wisconsin defense want is to let him add a third to his highlight reel.
UW shut down the duel threat quarterback effectively in two prior meetings, but he still managed a big scoring drive in each game that made an impact. As head coach Bret Bielema has emphasized since the Michigan State loss, even one or two poor plays for the Wisconsin defense could be the difference.
Defensive coordinator Dave Doeren and the Badgers will no doubt look to force Pryor's teammates to beat them. If they keep Pryor quiet, the home team could come out on top.
3. Embrace the hype
For most of the players on the Wisconsin sideline, this will be the biggest game of their careers so far. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, are no strangers to the national spotlight.
Aside from three straight losses to OSU, the Badgers have enjoyed some success against the Buckeyes this decade. UW won three straight in Columbus before losing the last two, and they've given them all they can handle in Madison.
Last time the Buckeyes visited, a last-minute scoring drive combined with a game-ending interception tipped the scales in Ohio State's favor. In 2003, the Badgers came up with the big score late. A year earlier, the Buckeyes needed an interception to seal a close victory late.
If the Badgers can embrace the hype without letting it get the best of them, they should have all the motivation needed to rise to the occasion.
4. Special delivery
Last year, both the Badgers and Buckeyes scored a touchdown on special teams. For UW, it was Chris Maragos' 9-yard run for the near pylon on a second-quarter fake field goal. For OSU, it was a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
The chances of a game-changing touchdown coming on special teams are better than usual. Wisconsin's coverage unit continues to have fans holding their breath every time Philip Welch boots the ball down field. With Ohio State boasting the conference's best return average, things could get interesting.
Of course, the Buckeyes aren't real strong on kick coverage either. With the skills of James White, David Gilreath and the potential shown by Aaron Henry, special teams could provide some fireworks on national television.
5. Clay, Kendricks, Toon
As they handed it to Minnesota last week and retained Paul Bunyan's Axe for the seventh straight year, the Badgers got their three-headed offensive attack working as well as it has all season. When John Clay, Lance Kendricks and Nick Toon all get rolling, the Wisconsin offense becomes near impossible to stop.
Clay tallied 69 yards on just 10 carries against Ohio State in 2008, but managed just 59 yards on 20 carries a year ago. If his offensive line can withstand the Buckeyes' pressure attack to open up some holes, the Badgers could get things rolling.
But while Clay's effectiveness will have some impact on the outcome, the key for the UW offense will be getting Tolzien in rhythm with Kendricks and Toon. If the passing game can be effective, it will open things up for Clay and White.
More than any game this season, this is one I've gone back and forth on all week. Immediately following last week's win, I had the Badgers by nine. Two days later, Buckeyes by three sounded pretty good.
It's hard to bet against the No. 1 team in the nation, even in a hostile environment at Camp Randall. But it's equally hard to expect a team that's 40-4 at home since 2004 to go down in front it's home crowd.
This is a must-win for the Wisconsin, and even more so for Bielema, who has yet to add a signature win to his coaching resume. For that reason, I'm taking Wisconsin to win, 24-20.