Commentary

Badgers look to bounce back against top-ranked Buckeyes

Originally Published: October 31, 2007
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

Shane Carter isn't afraid to admit it. There's an Ohio State receiver he doubts he can cover.

[+] EnlargeShane Carter
David Stluka/Getty ImagesShane Carter and Wisconsin are trying to upset the Ohio State.

That seems an alarming bit of honesty, since Carter is Wisconsin's free safety and the Badgers (7-2, 3-2) play Saturday at No. 1 Ohio State (9-0, 5-0).

Carter, though, can't bring himself to offer any bravado he's pretty sure he can't back up.

"I'd like to say I could cover him, but, really, I doubt it," Carter said. "After all, no one in the NFL could."

Turns out, the Ohio State receiver Carter fears most is his brother, Cris, who left Columbus as the Buckeyes' career receptions leader in 1986 and later was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame.

That Carter won't be playing on Saturday, but OSU boasts plenty of other weapons for Shane Carter to worry about.

He saw them all on Saturday night, when the Buckeyes obliterated Penn State, 37-17, in what was supposed to be a stress test in State College.

Instead, it was a never-in-doubt walkover that saw Ohio State do anything and everything.

Except punt, of course. The Buckeyes were never forced to do that even once.

"I watched it," Carter said. "It was a dominant performance. There's not much else to say. We know we have a great challenge in front of us. They're No. 1 in the nation, so it's a great opportunity."

Carter is one of the few Badgers who have been to Ohio Stadium before. Wisconsin hasn't played there since 2004, when it celebrated a 24-13 win by dancing on the Block O at midfield.

Only 12 of coach Bret Bielema's current players were in uniform that day, but they're being held accountable for the sins of their predecessors.

"That's what I remember about them coming in here the last time," OSU tight end Rory Nicol said. "They danced on the O. That was disrespectful, but, hey, they won the game."

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Wisconsin has had the most success of any Big Ten team against Ohio State lately, defeating the Buckeyes three of four times since Jim Tressel's hiring.

The Badgers broke OSU's 19-game winning streak in 2003 in Madison, and they have a three-game winning streak in Ohio Stadium that started in 1999 and continued with wins over the Tressel-coached Buckeyes in 2001 and 2004.

Penn State is the only other Big Ten opponent to defeat Tressel more than once in his seven seasons, and the penalty for those two Nittany Lions' wins over The Vest was evident for all to see on Saturday.

OSU quarterback Todd Boeckman threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns. Tailback Chris Wells ran for 133 of the Buckeyes' 200 rushing yards. And the offense converted 12 of 16 third downs against a defense that ranked second in the league in every category.

That same Penn State defense did everything but hold Wisconsin's head under water three weeks ago in a 38-7 rout that left the Badgers wondering who that team was staring back from the horror show that passed for their Sunday film session.

"That was ugly," Carter said. "None of us were used to losing. Period. But to lose like that, and to lose two games in a row, it was hard to take."

So, the Badgers didn't.

They've bounced back with consecutive wins over Northern Illinois and Indiana, not allowing a touchdown in either game.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWisconsin coach Bret Bielema is preparing for a Big Ten showdown.

Those results are what was expected of Wisconsin when it returned seven defensive starters from a 12-1 team that shut down Arkansas in a Capital One Bowl victory to cap rookie coach Bret Bielema's first season.

Instead, the Badgers struggled to shake Washington State (42-21), UNLV (20-13) and The Citadel (45-31) before Big Ten play began.

A 31-26 loss at Illinois ended Wisconsin's 14-game winning streak, and the problems only escalated the following week at Penn State, exposing trouble that had been brewing since the preseason.

"It's been frustrating," said Bielema, whose defense was No. 1 in the league in scoring, against the pass and overall, last season. "We didn't have enough continuity during practice, starting in fall camp. We had quite a few guys who missed time, and that stuff carries over. If you're not out there on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it's no surprise when you're not ready to execute on Saturday."

Bielema booted defensive end Jamal Cooper from the squad right before the opener, removing a potential All-Big Ten player without much time to adjust. Cooper's backup, Kurt Ware, has battled a balky recovery from a knee injury all season and can play only limited snaps. That's forced defensive tackle Mike Newkirk to move into a position he's not ideally suited to play.

Couple the reduced depth, and less-effective pass rush with new safeties Carter and Aubrey Pleasant, and the Badgers have been vulnerable until playing better the past two weeks.

"I think they've gained some confidence," Bielema said. "Our four new guys were struggling early and we got rattled against Penn State. Since then, we've gotten back to basics. We've leveraged the ball better and not let it get outside of us. We've been more fundamentally sound and it's paid off for us."

Whether Wisconsin can hit the jackpot at Ohio State is another matter. The Buckeyes have plugged Boeckman in for Heisman Trophy-winner Troy Smith and Wells in for back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher Antonio Pittman, and they appear not to miss first-round NFL receivers Anthony Gonzalez or Ted Ginn, with Robiskie and Hartline doing their damage.

"Ohio State has players leave, some because they graduate and some because of the draft, but they always have guys waiting to step in," Bielema said. "They put their offense on the field and advance the ball. They don't ever put their defense in a bad position. They have playmakers who can make something happen in a short amount of time, and they have a quarterback who's making great decisions."

And the best way to stop that?

"We're going to try to play with 12 guys," Bielema said.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.