COLUMBUS -- In a season-long test of toughness for Ohio State, the visit from Wisconsin on Saturday night could be a benchmark.
The Badgers likely will not be the most talented team to take on the Buckeyes this season, but their long-time style of play provides a fitting challenge for the fourth game of the season.
One third of the way through the schedule, Ryan Day’s team gets to show what it has learned since being bullied by similar teams last season.
“I think that Wisconsin epitomizes, you know, Big Ten football,” Day said Thursday. “They’re well-coached. They have good players. They play with a physical nature. They have a great identity and have for a long time.”
Identity has been a question mark for Day’s team since his third regular season at the helm ended in disappointment with a double-digit loss at Michigan.
A wild, come-from-behind win over Utah in the Rose Bowl provided some good feelings heading into the offseason, but Day has not shied away from the topic of toughness since the Buckeyes began work on 2022.
Here are five things to know about the game:
1. Day expects to see some familiar things from coach Paul Chryst’s Badgers.
“This team that we’re playing on Saturday night is very similar to the ones you probably grew up watching, and it’s been that way for a while,” Day said. “There’s really good tradition there, and they’re a very good team. So we know that this is what we have to do. If we’re going to make a run at the Big Ten championship, we have to beat Wisconsin.”
To that end, Wisconsin has a tough one-two punch at running back in the form of power back Braelon Allen and the shiftier Chez Mellusi.
2. Graham Mertz could change things.
With a new offensive coordinator in town (former Penn State star receiver Bobby Engram), the Badgers are making an effort to be more balanced.
Their quarterback is key to succeeding, of course, and so far Mertz has done the job after a disappointing sophomore season.
His 190.0 QB rating ranks second only to Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud in the Big Ten, and he is completing 71 percent of his passes (44 for 62) for 697 yards and six touchdowns while working with a new-look receiving corps that includes Northmont grad Markus Allen.
“I think that he is trusting in himself. He’s trusting what he is seeing and he’s trusting those around him,” Chryst said during his weekly press conference in Madison. “Each week you’re going to see something new. This week we’ll see something different, and that’s always a new test, a new challenge.”
3. Ohio State’s quarterback has showed off some new tricks lately, too.
C.J. Stroud talked about expanding his game in the offseason, and the OSU signal-caller has done just that, most notably by showing off a greater ability to keep plays alive with his feet.
“I think you can see the work that he’s done in the offseason just with his body’s movement, quickness, speed, strength,” Day said. “Any time you can extend plays and allow your receivers more time to get open, it’s an advantage.”
Stroud said running is still not something at the top of his mind.
“If that throw is there, I’m throwing the ball,” he said. “But I mean, if running presents itself, then I’ll take that into consideration.”
4. The Badgers figure to test the offense’s communication.
Wisconsin plays defense out of a three-man front and will use that look to bring pressure from different places on different plays, a challenge for the offense to decipher if it wants to stay on schedule.
“For us it’s going to be a great feat to go against them, and I think it’s something we’re excited about,” center Luke Wypler said. “I think it’s something we embrace. Early on we had Notre Dame who was exceptional up front and now we have this team. It’s a new challenge every week.”
5. Ohio State’s cornerbacks also likely will play a key role.
Safeties got a lot of the attention in the offseason because Jim Knowles’ new defense is built around them, but the scheme won’t work without strong cornerback play.
So far, it’s been shaky with Cam Brown giving up a long touchdown last week and Denzel Burke having endured ups and downs in Week 2 and 3, but Knowles said he remains confident in the players at the position.
“Denzel is serious about his craft,” Knowles said. “He comes in early and works with (secondary coach Tim Walton) and does all the right things. Like I said before, it’s life on an island and it’s difficult, particularly at The Ohio State with all the attention.
“He’s just going to get better and better every week. We have 100 percent confidence in him.”
Wisconsin at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., ABC, 1410
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