There couldn’t be a bigger, more pressure-packed stage for Ohio State’s Cardale Jones to make his first start for the Buckeyes. The sophomore quarterback will fill in for the injured J.T. Barrett against Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship game Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as Ohio State also hopes for a shot at the national title playoff.
Barrett was lost for the season after suffering a broken right ankle in last week’s 42-28 victory over Michigan. The No. 7 Buckeyes (11-1, 8-0 Big Ten, No. 5 CFP) already clinched the Big Ten East title the week before, but needed a win over their rivals to the North in order to gain votes from the College Football Playoff committee.
The Buckeyes did move up one spot from No. 6 to No. 5, putting them one away from a berth in the inaugural playoff, but it cost them a star quarterback who blazed a record-breaking trail of 45 total touchdowns from scrimmage after taking over for the also-injured Braxton Miller early in the season.
Now Jones, who was passed over for the backup role by Barrett during the summer, steps in against a Badgers defense ranked fourth in the nation with 16.8 points allowed per game.
At 6-foot-5 and 250 lbs., Jones certainly has the size and strength to take some punishment from Wisconsin linebackers and top pass rushers Derek Landisch and Vince Biegel. But he’ll need to adjust to real game speed very quickly, having taken only 17 pass attempts for 118 yards and two touchdowns all season, and 19 attempts total in his brief college career.
How Jones adjusts will be a key factor for the Buckeyes, but head coach Urban Meyer could alleviate some of the pressure with more play calls for team-leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott. The sophomore’s seventh in the Big Ten with 1,181 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, and he’s gained more than 100 yards in three of the Buckeyes last four games.
With two losses they’re highly unlikely to make the postseason, but the No. 11 Badgers (10-2, 7-1 Big Ten, No. 13 CFP) have plenty riding on Sunday’s game. For one they can reclaim the Big Ten title after their three-year reign atop the conference was snapped by Michigan State last season.
Wisconsin can also spoil Ohio State’s bid while eating into their rivals 56-18-5 all-time record in the series. Wisconsin has dropped the last three meetings between the schools, but by a slim average of six points each contest.
The Badgers will also send out the nation’s leading running back in Melvin Gordon. The junior's gained 2,260 yards and scored 26 touchdowns, while eclipsing the 200-yard mark in five contests this season, highlighted by his short-lived and record-breaking 408-yard game versus Nebraska.
Shutting down the run hasn’t been a major strength of the Buckeyes defense, but it certainly isn’t a weakness either. Ohio State’s let up 145.6 rushing yards a game, good for fifth best in the conference, but it has allowed 21 rushing touchdowns, which ranks near bottom.
Start Time: 8:17 P.M. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Point Spread: Wisconsin -4
Over/Under: 52.5 points
Prediction: Wisconsin over Ohio State, 37-30