UW will be bucking formidable defense
“It is going to be the ultimate challenge for us so far this season,” Wisconsin’s senior quarterback said.
When UW (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) meets Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) on Saturday, the Badgers will be facing the No. 1-ranked team in all the major rankings, led by the No. 1 overall defense in the nation.
Despite returning just five starters from a unit that finished the 2006 regular season second nationally in scoring defense (10.4 ppg), the Buckeyes enter this week No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (8.9 ppg) and No. 1 in total defense (214.6 ypg).
“You thrive in those situations,” Donovan said. “Playmakers step up in big games. We can set a statement on Saturday what we’re all about.”
UW’s defense and special teams certainly will be tested as well, but those units have flourished in each of the last two games.
UW’s offense has not performed with the same proficiency and with tailback P.J. Hill doubtful because of the bruised leg he suffered last week against Indiana, moving the ball consistently against the Buckeyes will be more taxing.
Even with Hill in the lineup, UW too often in league play has failed to capitalize on legitimate scoring chances, including Saturday against Indiana. Barring turnovers, the Badgers probably won’t get many scoring chances against an Ohio State defense that shut down Penn State’s offense in a 37-17 victory Saturday night.
The Nittany Lions entered the game sixth in the Big Ten in total offense in league games, one spot behind UW, at 402.0 yards per game.
They drove 76 yards in nine plays (8.4 yards per play) for a touchdown on their first possession.
They managed 187 yards in 40 plays (4.7 yards per play) over their final eight possessions.
“It was frustrating because we thought we were going to be able to come out right after that first touchdown and keep the momentum going,” said Penn State tailback Rodney Kinlaw, who rushed 14 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. “We just slowed down too much.”
UW’s offense has been slowed in Big Ten play by unforced penalties, too many turnovers (12 in five games) and by leaving too many points on the field.
UW’s defense forced five turnovers against Indiana. Ignoring the fifth turnover, which came with six seconds left in the game, UW’s offense failed to score a point off four turnovers.
Of those first four turnovers:
A recovered fumble at the Indiana 48 led to a punt.
An interception at the Indiana 32 led to a lost fumble.
A recovered fumble at the UW 46 led to a punt.
A recovered fumble at the UW 7 led to a punt.
Overall, UW ran 15 plays after the first four turnovers and managed just 48 yards.
“We really could have put them away a little bit earlier,” said Donovan, who suffered two turnovers against the Hoosiers and has eight interceptions and five touchdown passes in league games. “That is the biggest thing I would like to tweak, staying on the field and taking advantage of opportunities.”
But with Hill (1,066 yards, 14 touchdowns) likely out or at best limited, can UW’s running game be a factor? Can backup Zach Brown and the UW fullbacks compensate? Can UW’s line generate enough push so the Badgers can move the ball on the ground against a defense surrendering just 70.9 rushing yards per game? Can the line give sufficient time to Donovan, who tends to struggle when his first read isn’t open?
“Their linebackers are fast,” offensive coordinator Paul Chryst said. “Their secondary has great range. Their ends are . . . their team speed is excellent.”
The challenge this week is onerous for UW. It is up to the offense to rise and meet that challenge.
“Those are games you’re going to remember for the rest of you life,” Donovan said. “That is why you’ve got to take advantage and play your best.”