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Keys to Saturday's Badgers football showdown at the Ohio State Buckeyes

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Illinois St Wisconsin Football

Wisconsin's Graham Mertz throws a pass against Illinois State during Saturday's season opener at Camp Randall Stadium.

The University of Wisconsin football team is 2-1 entering the Big Ten opener at Ohio State. Badgers players saw improvements after beating New Mexico State.

The Badgers last won in Columbus in 2004, a losing streak of five games. And Ohio State is no stranger to playing in prime time, going 21-4 in night games since the start of the 2017 season. Here's a look at the keys to victory for both teams ... and a prediction for the final score.

Three keys for the Badgers

Make them patient: Ohio State’s explosiveness on offense is why it’s able to compete in College Football Playoff games and what separates it from the rest of the Big Ten. UW has to take that away.

The Buckeyes’ touchdown scoring drives average just more than six plays. UW’s best chance is if it can double that number. The more plays on a drive, the more chances for a hold, a dropped pass, a miscommunication, something that can put the Badgers defense in a good down-and-distance to get off the field. To accomplish this goal, the Badgers have to contain tailbacks TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, tackle well and avoid receivers getting behind them.

Make blitzes count: The Badgers only blitzed their first three opponents on 18.1% of their plays, per PFF. That partially can be attributed to UW having a big lead in two of those three games, and Washington State’s offense not lending itself to being blitzed often.

Expect UW to send an extra rusher more frequently Saturday for a couple of reasons. First, inside linebacker Jordan Turner has created pressure when he rushes, and second, blitzes can create one-on-one matchups Nick Herbig, the Badgers’ best edge player. But when UW brings pressure, the Badgers must tally sacks or force incompletions — asking the secondary to cover too long on a play against OSU’s receiving corps is a recipe for disaster.

Find and block the Jack: Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ move from Oklahoma State to Ohio State was one of the most significant in college football this offseason. His job was laid out simply: Make the Buckeyes better on defense and help them win a national championship this season.

One of the special features of Knowles’ system is the use of a defensive end in a two-point stance at varying points of the defensive front. Jack Sawyer is the man playing that role this season, and the former five-star recruit is starting to find success after tallying five tackles with two for loss last week.

Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz and center Joe Tippmann must identify Sawyer and account for him in the blocking scheme each play.

Three keys for the Buckeyes

Heat Mertz up: Graham Mertz has played his best and most consistent football in the opening weeks of this season, and solid pass blocking by his offensive line has been a key component of that start. But Mertz still struggles to execute when he’s under pressure.

UW’s first three opponents got pressure on Mertz on just 20% of his dropbacks, according to PFF, and Mertz completed 3 of 7 passes for 23 yards, a touchdown and an interception on those plays. OSU has studs upfront like Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau who can get home without the aid of blitzing, but the Buckeyes might want to press the envelope early to see if they can rattle Mertz.

Take away Dike: Junior Chimere Dike is the most dependable option for Mertz, and the one he’s checking first on third downs. Mertz has done well this season spreading around the ball and not locking into Dike in every situation, but the Buckeyes should do what they can to make other, less-proven receivers make the plays the Badgers need.

OSU cornerback Denzel Burke hasn’t been quite as good as he was last season, but look for him to draw the assignment on Dike whenever the receiver is lined up on the outside.

Double-team Keeanu Benton: Keeanu Benton told reporters Monday that he views a game at Ohio State in his senior year as an opportunity to boost his draft stock. The nose tackle was one of the bright spots on UW’s defense the last time it faced the Buckeyes in the 2019 Big Ten title game, barreling through the line with little more than bull rushes as a true freshman. Benton, now older, wiser and better, has been the most disruptive Badgers defensive lineman with nine pressures, per PFF.

OSU should send two linemen at Benton every play until the Badgers’ edge rushers prove they can beat tackles Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones and force the Buckeyes out of that plan.

Predictions

The Badgers’ toughest regular-season test also comes with the most difficult circumstances — on the road at the Horseshoe in primetime with 102,000-plus fans locked in on a themed night.

Ohio State sees the Badgers and most other opponents not named Michigan as speed bumps on the way to another Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth. UW didn’t do enough in its weak nonconference schedule to make anyone believe that it will win this game, but there might be just enough on both sides to keep it respectable.

Colten's pick: OSU 31, Badgers 14

Here's how fans picked the game.

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