Indianapolis, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - The Amos Alonzo Stagg Trophy is up for grabs, as the 11th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers take on the sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2014 Big Ten Conference Championship Game.
Wisconsin earned its way to the title tilt, its third appearance in the four years the game has been in existence, by winning the Big Ten's West Division after knocking off Minnesota last Saturday, 34-24. As a result, the Badgers finished the regular season at 10-2 overall, which included a 7-1 league ledger, and they are seeking their first Big Ten crown since winning back-to- back titles in 2011-12.
The Badgers are currently riding a seven-game win streak, and they earned their first outright division title in four years.
Ohio State is in the conference championship game for the second straight year after losing to Michigan State in 2013, 34-24. The Buckeyes have won 10 straight games, finishing the regular season at 11-1, 8-0 in conference. They have now won three straight division titles, and they have won a Big Ten- record 24 consecutive conference games during the regular season.
OSU is the first program in Big Ten history to go undefeated and untied over a three-year period, and the first to go without a conference loss in three straight seasons since Minnesota turned the trick from 1933-35.
The Badgers and Buckeyes last met on Sept. 28, 2013, with Ohio State earning a 31-24 triumph at home. As a result, OSU's lead in the all-time series stands at a commanding 56-18-5.
The Buckeyes suffered two major losses in the last week, one on the field and one off it as the team will have to finish the campaign without starting quarterback J.T. Barrett after the Big Ten Freshman of the Year suffered a broken ankle in the team's 42-28 win over hated rival Michigan last Saturday. However, the more tragic loss came on Sunday when it was announced that missing defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge had died of an apparent self- inflicted gunshot wound.
Head coach Urban Meyer spoke about the adversity his team is facing, and how he is confident they will rally around each other, as they've done so many times before.
"Every red flag is up, every excuse is out there to not play well, to not win a game, to lose a game. You have some really good built in excuses. To overcome the incredible tragedy that happened last night, this is a real challenge. We're going to watch it very closely. I can tell you this: Extremely close team that does a lot of things together and cares about each other."
With regard to the game at hand, it will be up to sophomore QB Cardale Jones to lead the OSU offense, which ranked as one of the top units in the FBS during the regular season when it averaged 44.1 points and 503.4 yards per game, something he does quite sparingly in his time in Columbus. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Jones certainly has the build to withstand the punishment the Badgers are likely to try and dole out, and he is a far cry from Barrett (203- of-314, 2,834 yards, 34 TDs, 10 INTs), at least in terms of proven ability, as he has thrown two touchdown passes in going 10-of-17 for 118 yards in seven appearances this season.
While Barrett (171 carries, 938 yards, 11 TDs) was also a serious weapon in the ground game, 1,000-yard rusher Ezekiel Elliott (1,182 yards, 10 TDs) will be back there to hand the ball off to in an attempt to keep the Wisconsin defense back on its heels. When Jones does get the opportunity to air it out, it will likely be Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, Jalin Marshall or Elliott that will be on the receiving end more often than not, as that group has combined for 118 receptions, 1,865 yards and 24 TDs this year.
Ohio State's defense had a solid season, as it allowed 22.9 points and 333.8 yards per contest. There are several standout performers on that side of the ball as well, among them leading tackler Joshua Perry (108 tackles, three sacks, INT), sack machine and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa (20 TFL, 12 sacks) and ball-hawking DB Vonn Bell (71 tackles, four INTs). Others turning in productive campaigns include Tyvis Powell (62 tackles, three INTs), Darron Lee (59 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, two INTs) and Doran Grant (48 tackles, three INTs).
The Buckeyes are certainly going to have their hands full trying to stop the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, who set a new single-season conference record and is closing on the all-time FBS single- season rushing mark (Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders, 2,628 yards) as he leads the nation with 2,260 yards and 26 TDs. He is averaging 188.3 ypg, single- handedly accounting for roughly 40 percent of the Badgers' entire offensive output (481.2 ypg).
When Wisconsin decides that someone else deserves a cut of the action, the ball more times than not goes to RB Corey Clement (127 carries, 830 yards, eight TDs) or backup QB Tanner McEvoy (64 carries, 572 yards, six TDs) on the ground, while starting signal caller Joel Stave (79-of-136, 1,042 yards, eight TDs, four INTs) usually seeks out WR Alex Ericson (44 receptions, 651 yards, three TDs) or TE Sam Arneson (25 receptions, 331 yards, four TDs) in the passing game.
The UW defense has been on point for much of the season, as the unit ranks first in the Big Ten and fourth nationally in allowing only 16.8 ppg, while checking in first in the conference and second in the FBS in permitting just 206.3 total ypg. The Badger have been especially impressive against the pass, yielding a league-low 156.6 ypg, which again has them No. 2 in the country.
Michael Caputo has led the team in tackles almost from the start, logging 93 stops, while also picking off a pass and pouncing on four fumbles. The UW defense also has three players with double-digit TFL (Marcus Trotter, Derek Landisch, Vince Biegel), the trio combining for 19 of the team's 35 sacks (third-most in the Big Ten). Despite their stellar play in defending the pass, the Badgers rank 13th in the 14-team conference in interceptions with only six.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen, while thrilled his team was able to play well enough this season to make it back to the Big Ten Championship Game, knows the task in front of them is immense.
"Ohio State is going to be a tremendous challenge, two very talented football teams having great years to this point and I know we're both going to be excited to play."
Excited is what anyone associated with these two teams should be, as outside of perhaps Michigan State, these are the two that seem to rise to the top more times than not in the Big Ten recently.