COLUMBUS — This game does not compare to The Game.
Ohio State players let there be no mistake of that as they began preparations for Saturday’s showdown at Wisconsin.
For one, they will refer to the Badgers by name. This week’s opponent is not the team way up north but simply Wisconsin. Even when Michigan or OSU is down, there can be no surrogate for The Game.
Of the UM rivalry, Buckeyes center Corey Linsley said, “It’s in a different ballpark.”
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Yet to watch Monday’s practice was to behold an intensity and crackle often reserved only for the final week of the regular season.
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes (10-0, 6-0 Big Ten) are ready to devour the main course of their unlikely season.
After 10 weeks of appetizers followed by last week’s bye, Ohio State’s season comes down to back-to-back meetings with its two biggest rivals — one recent and one age-old.
Beat Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes clinch the Leaders division outright. Beat UW and Michigan, and they will claim the program’s first unbeaten season since 2002.
“They know what's coming,” coach Urban Meyer said. “I always worry about the ones they don't have respect for, and that's when we got to rah-rah and cheer them on and scream and yell and throw things and all that. We didn't have to teach them to go hard today.”
Wisconsin (7-3, 6-2), which has skated to a bid in the conference title game with Leaders division rivals OSU and Penn State both ineligible, can have that effect. As defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said, “There’s just something we don’t like about them, and that’s the way it’s going to continue to be.”
In a black-and-blue showdown teeming with storylines — on the field and off — Saturday’s meeting at Camp Randall Stadium will mark the latest edition of one of the conference’s best contemporary rivalries.
The schools have taken turns spoiling seasons of great expectation the last two falls, with the top-ranked Buckeyes falling 31-18 at No. 18 Wisconsin in 2010 before evening the score in gut-punching fashion last season. Braxton Miller’s on-the-move 40-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds remaining lifted OSU to a 33-29 victory — and handed the Big Ten champions their second straight last-minute loss.
“It's interesting hearing our players talk about it, especially ones that I listen to, guys that have been in some of those big games,” Meyer said. “This is a rivalry game.”
Meyer’s introduction to the modern version of it figures to be just as intense, with Wisconsin installed as a 1½-point favorite.
The Badgers have endured a difficult year, from a tumultuous offseason marred by an off-campus beating that left star running Montee Ball with a concussion to an unsteady fall. Frustration peaked after Wisconsin’s 10-7 loss to Oregon State in Week 2 when coach Bret Bielema fired first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson. (Former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst took line coach Bob Bostad with him when he was hired at Pittsburgh.)
The Badgers, though, looked like their old bullying selves in a 62-14 victory over Indiana last week. With third-string quarterback Curt Phillips starting in place of injured starter Joel Stave (broken collarbone) and struggling Maryland transfer Davey O’Brien, Ball and Co. rushed for a school-record 564 yards — the most by a Big Ten team since 1994.
The Badgers’ plan comes with little suspense: They want to cram it down your throat, though that plays to OSU’s strength. The Buckeyes, who will be lifted by the return of senior linebacker Etienne Sabino (broken leg), have played their best against packed-in pro-style offenses.
“Every time you play Wisconsin you’re going to be beat up at the end of the day,” defensive end John Simon said. “We’re going to find out who’s tougher.”
As for bruising off the field, Saturday also marks the first meeting between Bielema and Meyer. There was no love lost between the two last winter when Bielema indirectly accused Meyer of unethically pursuing recruits committed to other Big Ten schools, telling the Sporting News, “We in the Big Ten don't want to be like the SEC.” Meyer denied breaking any rules and told Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to ask Bielema to apologize.
Bielema on Monday called the recruiting controversy "a lot to do about nothing," though he added, "I learned early on in my coaching career you lose more friends in recruiting in the coaching world than you do on game days."
Meyer has repeatedly said he and Bielema have since mended their relationship.
“I have a lot of respect for his team,” Meyer said. “Other than that, we're fine.”
Contact David Briggs at:firstname.lastname@example.org,419-724-6084, or onTwitter @DBriggsBlade.