Big Ten Football Previews: Wisconsin, Ohio State

BY DI STAFF | AUGUST 24, 2012 6:30 AM

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Montee Ball knows what the driving force is behind all of Wisconsin’s recent success.

Ball led the nation in rushing yards last season and tied an all-time NCAA record with 39 touchdowns. He is college football’s leading returning vote-getter in the Heisman Trophy race this season. But the senior running back wasn’t taking much credit at Big Ten media day on July 27.

“Without the offensive line,” he said, “I’m nowhere.”

Last season, a massive Badger line paved the way for Ball to score all those touchdowns and for the team to play in its second straight Rose Bowl. Wisconsin’s five starters up front averaged 322 pounds. The Badgers lost three All-Big Ten lineman to the NFL after last season, but head coach Bret Bielema doesn’t seem worried about reloading up front.

“The great thing is, at the University of Wisconsin, we’ve probably been able to play offensive line at the highest level possible in college football,” he said. “We have guys in our program right now who have never started a game who I believe can play at that level.”

That confidence is justified. After all, the Badgers had lost three starting lineman to the draft after the 2010 season as well. At Wisconsin, there never seems to be any shortage of great blockers.

The next one might be left tackle Ricky Wagner. The 6-6, 320-pound senior stepped into a starting role last season and earned all-conference honorable-mention honors. Bielema has higher goals for Wagner this season.

“Every left tackle who started for me at my years at Wisconsin has won the Outland Trophy and been a first-round draft pick,” Bielema said. “So he’s, hopefully, going to live up to the same standards.”

After quarterback Russell Wilson moved on to the NFL after just one season as a transfer at Madison, the Badgers brought in a new transfer to finish his career. Quarterback Danny O’Brien left Maryland to play for Wisconsin, and his good decision-making and accuracy give yet another boost to a powerful offense.

But the Badgers don’t need an all-world quarterback — or as Ball said, “We just need Danny to be Danny.” Because the real stars of their offense are the guys doing the dirty work.

Wagner said Wisconsin’s offensive lines have been so successful because of the program’s philosophy.

“We really take the running game seriously and take a lot of pride in running the ball,” he said. “When a run gets called, it’s on our shoulders, and it’s our time to shine.”

By Sam Louwagie

Ohio State

Ohio State is coming off its first losing season since 1988. The Buckeyes enter 2012 under fresh leadership and a set of NCAA sanctions that prevent them from playing in a bowl game this season.

But new head coach Urban Meyer isn’t going to change his approach because of all that.

“Play very good defense. Take care of the ball on third down; 45 percent conversion [rate],” he said. “That’s what coaches think about. They’re not worried about all the [other] stuff. Just make sure you execute very well on Saturday.”

Meyer said the NCAA sanctions — which stem from improper benefits received by players under former coach Jim Tressel in 2010 — pose a larger problem for the 2013 season than they do this fall because of the practice time given to teams that play in bowl games.

It’s something he said he’s struggling with.

“I’ve never had to deal with that situation as far as preparing for the following season,” he said. “That’s the only issue. The issue is not the 2012 season at all. We’re going to line up and try to win every game we play. It’s just going to be: How do you handle the 2013 season?”

Part of Meyer’s plan involves more intensity in the team’s workouts than in previous years.

“There’s a lot more competitive nature in the weight room that we’re not used to,” senior fullback Zach Boren said. “Everything’s a competition; whether it be pull-ups, pull-downs, rows, bench press, squat — everything’s a competition, which just makes you push yourself that much harder.”

Boren said the NCAA sanctions haven’t been an issue for the team. He said the players have “totally blocked it out,” and they are focused on getting the program back to its winning ways.

Defensive end John Simon said this off-season was the best the Buckeyes have had in his time in Columbus, and he believes the team is more prepared for this season than it has been at any point in his career. He credited Meyer’s no-nonsense approach for that.

“I think when someone’s direct with you, it helps you get better,” said Simon, who was named a preseason all-conference pick. “There are no gray areas [with Meyer]. He’s telling us how it is, what he expects of us. If we’re doing a great job or a terrible job, and I think that direct communication is what we needed.”

With the prospect of a bowl game out of reach this season, one might expect there to be more emphasis placed on “The Game” against Michigan on Nov. 24. Meyer said he didn’t know how to add more to a rivalry such as that and admitted he was still undecided on how to attack that game.

But Boren didn’t hesitate when asked if the game could be made even bigger.

“No. It’ll be my Senior Day, the last time I’ll ever put on the Scarlet and Gray,” he said. “That’ll definitely be weird. But it’s a big game, year in and year out. It’s the biggest rivalry in all of college sports — I think sports, in general.”

The senior said he’s excited about the future under Meyer, and that excitement started from the moment the two-time national champion was introduced to the team in November.

“[Athletics Director Gene] Smith came in and said ‘We found a new head coach,’ and he went out and got him,” Boren said. “When [Meyer] came in, everyone perked up. You just knew he meant business; you knew things were going to change — change for the better.”

By Tork Mason

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