COLUMBUS — NBA star LeBron James on the sidelines. Alternate rivalry uniforms. A scarlet congregation of 106,000 set to include more than 50 blue-chip recruits.
Ohio State’s showdown against Wisconsin today at Ohio Stadium will be the spectacle of its home season. Yet for all the glamour and flash outside the lines, the contest between them will feature anything but.
"Obviously," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said, "this is one of those classic smash-mouth games."
And nowhere will this challenge of wills be more old school than when fourth-ranked OSU is on defense. A front seven loaded with six new starters is bracing for a defining early test against the No. 23 Badgers’ usual sledgehammer-to-the-face ground game.
The Buckeyes are ninth nationally in stopping the run, though their first four games have answered few questions. The biggest threat to date: a California rushing offense ranked 97th. Buffalo and San Diego State are 114th and 115th, respectively, while Florida A&M plays in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Now, in the Big Ten opener, OSU’s rebuilt line and and new middle linebacker Curtis Grant are plunging into the deep end. In a high-speed, spread-you-out era, the Badgers are the no-surprises throwback. They average a league-leading 349.8 rushing yards per game and have three backs on pace to run for 1,000 yards: sophomore Melvin Gordon, senior James White, and freshman Corey Clement.
How deep is the Badgers’ backfield? The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Gordon averages a head-turning 11.8 yards per carry and leads the nation with 624 rushing yards, while the more shifty White — the conference’s fourth-leading rusher — is the active FBS career rushing leader.
"We have not received a challenge yet like this one," OSU coach Urban Meyer said. "Cal was a tremendous challenge, but that was more we were playing dime defense and it was all about pass rush. This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven."
To study up, all OSU had to do was pop in film from last year. Heck, any year. Coaches change in Madison, but the tradition of powerful backs churning behind goliath offensive linemen never does. The Badgers have produced 19 1,000-yard rushers in the past 20 years, the lineage spanning from Heisman winner Ron Dayne to Anthony Davis to P.J. Hill to Montee Ball.
First-year Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen ran a spread offense at Utah State, but was smart enough not to fix what wasn’t broken.
"There's no disguise to what they are going to do," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "I don't think it's changed in Wisconsin in a long time. But that doesn't make it any easier."
Look for the Buckeyes to provide safety help in the box without fear of being burned by Wisconsin’s inconsistent passing game. Ultimately, though, they know stopping the visitors depends on their front seven.
That includes a line back near full strength — Meyer said end Adolphus Washington (groin) and tackle Michael Bennett (stinger) are ready to return — and, perhaps most important, Grant. Meyer called tonight "without question the defining moment" of the junior’s career.
“He’s facing one of the best running teams in the country, as good of backs as he will face all year and he’s the middle linebacker at Ohio State," he said. "It doesn’t get much bigger than this. He has earned it."
Grant and the Buckeyes know exactly what’s coming. Can they do something about it?