A formidable defense can lead a team to the promised land in the world of college football, and the Wisconsin Badgers have the kind of defense that keeps opposing offensive lines awake at night. The ability of Wisconsin to wreak havoc in both the pass and run games will test the Ohio State “Slobs,” namely redshirt senior center Pat Elflein.
So far this season, Elflein has been graded out as a “champion” multiple times by OSU coach Urban Meyer. A vocal and symbolic leader in the trenches for the Buckeyes, Elflein has been the unquestioned leader of a team that leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.
Wisconsin will be lining up a rare sight on Saturday against the Buckeyes: A true nose tackle.
Sophomore defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu is listed at 6-foot-2 and 340 pounds. A native of Huntington Beach, California, Sagapolu recorded a season high five tackles against Michigan last week.
On top of the presence of a run-stuffing force in the middle, Wisconsin has a group of defensive ends and linebackers that can dictate a game. A veteran of more than 30 games, redshirt junior Chikwe Obasih was a key member of the 2015 Badgers that were one of the top defenses in the country.
In the eyes of Meyer, Wisconsin is similar to OSU in the rich history of the program.
“We like to use the word culture around here, and I’m sure Coach Chryst and Coach Alvarez are very proud of the culture at Wisconsin,” Meyer said. “They should be.”
The numbers by both units on the defensive side of the ball are extremely similar. OSU allows just 10.8 points per game, while Wisconsin surrenders just 12.2 points per game.
While the Buckeyes are averaging 53.2 points in each contest, Wisconsin has been leaning on the play of its defense to win games.
Two weeks ago, the Badgers forced a top-tier Michigan offense into a defensive struggle. Even after three turnovers and an offensive attack that failed to produce more than 200 yards, a late score and interception by the Wolverines were needed to take Wisconsin down.
A team that is built to stifle the run game like Wisconsin might present a challenge, but Elflein is far from worried about the test ahead of his team. In fact, he’s looking forward to it.
“Those games are always fun. Just kinda like it was last week — it’s a Big Ten football game, where there’s big, physical guys inside, good linebackers,” Elflein said. “It’s going to come down to if we can run the ball, if we can protect, if we can stop the run. So yeah, those are fun games to play in.”
At linebacker, redshirt junior linebacker and former walk-on Jack Cichy leads the team in total tackles, but the true force at the position comes from the edge. Redshirt junior linebacker T.J. Watt certainly has the prestige behind him to bring an intimidation factor, but his play has provided most of the hype.
Watt, the brother of NFL defensive end J.J. Watt, has recorded 5.5 sacks this year. The Wisconsin native has disrupted opposing passing attacks throughout the season, along with wrapping up the ball carriers quickly.
Even with a name like Watt on the back of his jersey, redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett is not concerned about the linebacker’s presence on the field, and remained his normal calm, collected self when asked if he was worried about Watt’s ability.
“No, not really,” Barrett said quietly.
Although OSU surrenders few sacks, the ability for Barrett to remain in the pocket and scan the field will be crucial to the success of the team. The combination of junior H-back Curtis Samuel and redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber has been potent all year, but will be going against an entirely different challenge against Wisconsin, which allows just 90.4 rushing yards per game.
The ability of the Scarlet and Gray to continually hammer the ball might tire the Badger defense, but Wisconsin has a deep defensive playbook with more than a few looks. Elflein is aware of the challenges, and said OSU will be preparing for everything that might be thrown at them.
“They run a few different defensive fronts,” Elflein said. “Just knowing when they are going to run those fronts and be ready to execute when they give us different looks (will be key).”
Some OSU fans might be quick to note the last time the Buckeyes played Wisconsin, when OSU put a 59-0 thumping on the Badgers in the Big Ten championship.
However, there has been some change made since then, most notably at the position of head coach. Paul Chryst, the new leader for the Badgers, has brought a new attitude to Madison, Wisconsin. But, most importantly, he brings a new approach to the team on defense.
“I’m sure stuff is different, things are changed up,” Elflein said. “When they bring in a new head coach, it’s hard to go back and watch the old film.”
Across the offensive front, OSU will be put to the test by multiple weapons on Wisconsin’s defense. Whether it be on the edge by a blitzing linebacker or with a strong push in the middle, Wisconsin is shaping up to be the biggest test against the offensive line OSU has faced all year.
But for now, Elflein and the rest of the Buckeyes appear to be confident in their ability to come out on top in big games — especially Elflein, who has an interesting favorite part of playing away from home.
“Everyone hates you,” Elflein said with a smile. “Everyone’s yelling at you, and saying stuff at you. And it’s pretty much everybody against us.”