Ohio State schemed up, stretched out Wisconsin’s defense, left the Badgers sagging: Doug Lesmerises

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Wisconsin had 11 defenders to cover a field 53 yards and 1 foot wide. It looked like the Badgers had seven guys scurrying around the runway at an international airport.

Ohio State spread them and hit them hard in another Saturday night offensive masterclass engineered by Ryan Day, directed by CJ Stroud, and executed from an offensive line that moved the line of scrimmage with every snap. The Buckeyes gained at least 18 yards on each throw on their first drive — a wide screen for Marvin Harrison Jr., a pass down the middle to tight end Cade Stover, and a crossing route for Emeka Egbuka. That was 18 yards plus 22 yards plus 33 yards and Wisconsin chief defense coordinator Jim Leonhard spun.

It felt like the Badgers wouldn’t give up stopping the run, so instead they failed to slow the pass. And then they still couldn’t stop the run. Even without star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who missed his second full game through injury, Ohio State’s passing game stretched Wisconsin horizontally and vertically. Stretch most things enough – even a defense mathematically considered by Football Outsiders to be the second best in the nation – and it won’t hit back.

It stays stretched and sagging.

Ohio State’s 52-21 win was propelled by touchdowns on each of the Buckeyes’ first four drives. They led 31-7 at halftime, and even when Leonhard and the Badgers got their feet under their feet far enough to force Ohio State’s first punt in the third quarter, it was like waving a handkerchief, um stopping a 747 from taking off.

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A year ago, the Buckeyes scored 49 points in a top-10 Michigan State team in the first half, but the Spartans entered a game known for its suspect pass defense. No one really thought these Badgers could cover for the Buckeyes, especially with their top cornerback injured this season. But Wisconsin stands in his defense. It is part of the Badger Way. The Buckeyes came out and rolled them almost the same way they rolled MAC foe Toledo last week when they scored touchdowns on all six possessions in the first half.

Leonhard and Day have previously faced each other three times: in the 2017 Big Ten championship game when Day was in his first season as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator; and twice in 2019 in Day’s first season as head coach, in both the regular season and Big Ten title game.

Here are the stats and details of these three games:

* 2017 Big Ten title game: Ohio State won 27-21; led 21-10 at halftime; gained 449 yards and averaged 6.6 yards per game.

* Regular Season 2019: Ohio State won 38-7; led 10-0 at halftime; gained 431 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per game.

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* 2019 Big Ten title game: Ohio State won 34-21; trailed 21-10 at the half; gained 492 yards and averaged 6.3 yards per game.

And here was Saturday:

* Ohio State won 52-21; led 31-7 in the half; gained 539 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per game.

The Buckeyes have done this before with high-ranked defenders. The Buckeyes destroyed Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown with 1,144 yards of offense and 118 points in two big wins in 2018 and 2019. In a playoff semifinals in the 2020 season, Ohio State dropped 639 yards and 49 yards to Clemson, leading to questions as to whether the Tigers’ Brent Venables, perhaps the nation’s best defensive coordinator, had been untied.

This was Day Besting Leonhard (essentially backed by better players).

Whenever Wisconsin is the opponent, the discussion turns to identity, because the Badgers have been playing the same way since Barry Alvarez arrived in Madison in 1990. That’s more than three decades of run game and defense. Ohio State has won nine straight games against the Badgers, reflecting the Badgers’ excitement against the No. 1 Buckeyes in Madison in 2010. Wisconsin’s path can’t match the state of Ohio. But perhaps Wisconsin had never experienced the full identity of this Day offense before.

JT Barrett played with a knee injury in 2017. Chase Young dominated the first game of 2019 while Justin Fields and the offense opened with three straight punts. In the 2019 title game, Fields wasn’t entirely healthy either, and Ohio State had to recover from a 14-dead deficit.

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So Leonhard and the Badgers now have a full dose of the day’s walk as the Buckeyes rushed for 258 yards and threw for 281 yards. It feels like your defense has seven guys on the field trying to slow down an offense ready to run.

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