INDIANAPOLIS – As Ohio State tries to win its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, coach Urban Meyer has two main concerns.
The Buckeye coach wants to make sure Melvin Gordon hits the turf, and that Cardale Jones doesn’t, Meyer said Friday.
“That’s our No. 1 concern, is getting this guy to the ground,” he said. “Then No. 2 is making sure that we are protecting our quarterback.”
The Buckeyes — ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff standings — are set to take on No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the conference title game after finishing the season 11-1 overall and 8-0 in Big Ten play. But even with a 10-game winning streak in tow, OSU is coming off a loss of sorts after redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett fractured his ankle in a win over Michigan last weekend.
The day after Barrett’s injury, the Buckeyes learned of the death of one of their own — redshirt-senior defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who had been reported missing days earlier.
Now just a week later, OSU is preparing a new quarterback in the redshirt-sophomore Jones for his first collegiate start, while also trying to figure out a way to slow down the nation’s top rusher in Wisconsin’s redshirt-junior Gordon.
Gordon has gained 2,260 yards on 283 carries this season to go with 26 touchdowns on the ground for the 10-2 (7-1) Badgers. Only one team has held him under 122 yards rushing as Western Illinois found a way to limit him to just 38 yards on the ground on Sept. 6.
Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said he expects the Buckeyes to put emphasis on stopping the run, no different than any other opponent has this season.
“They’re going to load up the box, be very physical,” Andersen said Friday. “That’s the way the last three games have been. I don’t expect this game to be any different.”
Despite the fact that Gordon is the country’s top rusher, Meyer said facing a highly-talented back is nothing new for OSU.
“We faced several this year,” he said. “This (the Big Ten) is the deepest league as far as NFL running backs that I can ever remember. We faced them. I would like to say somewhat contained them other than a couple big hits.”
Going into the Big Ten Championship Game, the Buckeyes have given up 100 or more rushing yards to a single player in three of their past four games — all wins. But in each of those victories, Barrett — who set the Big Ten record with 45 total touchdowns before his injury — was lined up at quarterback.
Now the Buckeyes have put Jones on the fast track to start, which is something they have experience with. Barrett was the starter week one, but only because senior quarterback Braxton Miller tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder just 12 days before the opener, forcing him to miss the season.
Meyer said Jones’ preparation has been strong, despite some rough spots in practice this week.
“He’s prepared very well,” Meyer said. “Tuesday is a rugged day for anyone in practice. But I saw the improvement we needed to see on Wednesday.”
The third-year OSU coach stressed that the success of an offense — particularly a quarterback — is a product of all 11 players on the field.
“He (Jones) still obviously has to execute and do his things,” Meyer said. “The guys had a very good practice around him as well, starting with the offensive line.
“I’m very confident in Cardale.”
Even though Jones will have had just a week to get ready, Andersen said he expects the Buckeyes’ new starter to be ready to go when the teams take the field, so he’ll attack the game defensively just like any other.
“I think he’s definitely been in a position to be prepared,” Andersen said. “You always want to throw things at a quarterback regardless of who the quarterback is. One of our goals is to frustrate a quarterback, put a quarterback in a position where he doesn’t feel comfortable, let him understand that we’re going to be around him.”
Jones has thrown just 17 passes this season with 10 completions for 118 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown an interception and has carried the ball 26 times for another 206 yards on the ground.
Listed at 6-feet, 5-inches, Jones is a physical presence, and Andersen said that has been visible in the limited amount of game film the Badgers’ have been able to see.
“He’s a big, strong kid that can throw the ball very well,” Andersen said. “He’s shown great speed. He’s jumped over people, ran through people. He’s definitely an issue to tackle and get on the ground.”
If that analysis holds true, Meyer’s No. 2 concern might be put to rest. But that still leaves the Buckeyes looking for a way to bring Gordon to the ground.
No matter what, Meyer’s concerns are likely to keep him up Friday night, as he said he’s often a “nut job” the night before a big game.
“I don’t sleep very well,” he said. “I just keep walking around, staring at the players’ eyes. even when they think I’m not watching them, I’m watching them. I’m insane about that. I want to make sure when the foot hits the ball tomorrow night at eight, our guys are well-prepared, hydrated, properly rested.”
The Buckeyes and the Badgers are scheduled to kick off at 8:17 p.m. on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.