COLUMBUS – “When you throw the ball only three things can happen and two of them are bad.”
It’s one of the most famous quotes in football, which has been attributed at one time or another to Woody Hayes, former Texas coach Darrell Royal, former Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty and even long-ago Tennessee coach Robert Neyland.
It also has probably been used by a lot of coaches stuck with a bad quarterback some season.
Conference championship games, like Ohio State against Wisconsin tonight in the Big Ten championship game, offer a similar three-pronged choice.
The first choice is that a team can be exactly who it was during the regular season in a good way. Penn State spotting Wisconsin a big early lead in last year’s Big Ten championship game and roaring back for a 38-31 win is an example of that.
The second choice would be that a team plays over its head and leaves people amazed and wondering where that came from.
Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten championship game would be an example of this. So would Wisconsin scoring 70 against Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten title game. So would every conference championship game where a three-loss team upsets an unbeaten team.
The third choice would be that a team proves it is exactly what it was during the regular season in a bad way.
Ohio State in 2013 would be an example of this. The Buckeyes went 12-0 in the regular season despite a horrible pass defense but Connor Cook and Michigan State’s receivers exposed OSU’s season-long deficiencies in the defensive backfield with a vengeance in the Big Ten championship game.
So, will unpredictable Ohio State show up tonight in Indianapolis?
Will it be the where did that come from Buckeyes of the Michigan State game? Will it be the team that imploded like an aging stadium being demolished at Iowa? Or maybe a little of both?
And what about Wisconsin, an undefeated team with a much-questioned schedule which is almost a touchdown underdog to a two-loss team?
Will the Badgers roll methodically through their thirteenth game much the same way they’ve gone through their first 12? Or do they have a surprise, maybe good, maybe bad in store for them?
The biggest factor in the outcome of this game could be something that wasn’t even on the radar a week ago.
How healthy J.T. Barrett’s right knee is after arthroscopic surgery on Sunday could have a huge impact on Ohio State’s chances.
The essence of being J.T. Barrett on the football field is being a dual-threat quarterback, especially in big games. He has run the ball fewer than 10 times in a Big Ten game only seven times in his career and five of those games were against Rutgers, Illinois and Maryland.
If Barrett is OK, the biggest match-ups will be the battles between the offensive lines and defensive lines.
Wisconsin has its usual group of gigantic humans on the offensive line, led by left tackle Michael Deiter from Genoa High School.
Its front seven is among the best in the country and ranks first nationally in fewest rushing yards allowed (80.5 per game). Northwestern is the only team to score more than 17 points against the Badgers.
Ohio State’s defensive line is among the best in the country and Urban Meyer says OSU’s offensive line might be the unit playing the best on the team right now.
Turnovers could also be big and not just because they can produce points.
The 18 turnovers Ohio State’s defense has produced is tied for eighth in the Big Ten. But only Illinois’ total of 26 turnovers is worse in the Big Ten than Wisconsin’s 21 turnovers committed (13 interceptions, 8 fumbles).
Also, part of Wisconsin’s game plan every week is to keep the ball away from opposing offenses by handing the ball to the Big Ten’s leading rusher, freshman Jonathan Taylor (1,806 yards). Turnovers would take away from that strategy.
Big Ten championship games traditionally have been high scoring. The winning team has had 34 points or more in five of the six played so far.
The combination of Wisconsin’s defense and the questions around Barrett’s knee might make this one more of a low-scoring game.
A Wisconsin win would put the Badgers into the College Football Playoff. An Ohio State win would allow the Buckeyes to continue hoping they will hear their named called when the playoff teams are announced Sunday afternoon.
The prediction: Ohio State 24, Wisconsin 21.