In 2018 the Big Ten, which always enjoys tremendous parity at the top of its competition, has seen its most evenly contested season yet. This weekend it will reach its exciting pinnacle as #16 Wisconsin and #17 Ohio State will duke it out for the title.
These two teams have already met once before this season. In that earlier fixture, it was Ohio State handing the Badgers their only loss of the season, 22-17. If Saturday’s championship game is anything like the last match between these two, this could be the best game of the season.
Despite their earlier loss, Wisconsin isn’t entering Saturday with revenge on their mind. Instead their entering it with a sense of accomplishment, but know they haven’t finished their job just yet. “I don’t know if its revenge to be honest with you,” started Badgers’ head coach Scott Adlington. “No there is more at stake. At the start of the season our goal was to win the Big Ten, so we haven’t wavered from that. The fact there is a Big Ten title on the line, that’s enough motivation for us.”
For Ohio State, they’re not giving too much away, but after losing to Indiana in last year’s title match, they’re excited for another crack at the trophy. “We’re happy with where we are. We’ve been in the finals before but we haven’t won the conference outright now for many years. So we’re looking forward to this opportunity.” Ohio State Director of Rugby, Tom Rooney explained.
Since they last encountered Ohio State, Wisconsin have drawn from the experience and are planning on making some adjustments. Those adjustments center around preparing for a confrontational forward pack from the Buckeyes. “They play the game north south. They really do use their size well. We historically don’t have the size that Ohio State has. We have to be mindful of that,” Adlington added.
Rooney while not ecstatic with the Buckeyes’ performance last time round, does not think that too much needs to be adjusted, just a couple of tweaks to set them right. “There are some adjustments that we’ve noticed and we are going to make both offensively and defensively. We’re hoping to throw in a few new wrinkles in from our set pieces.”
A lot of the success that Wisconsin has experienced this year, Adlington is putting down to their structure and his players’ abilities to execute. He essentially tries to give the skills with which they need to succeed and then allows them the freedom to play the game however they see fit. “We’ve simplified our playing style a fair bit. We’ve steered away from pre-organized patterns, and really play the game with what’s in front of you. What we want to try and do is, arm the players with the tools they need to play rugby and then use those skills to determine what would work in any given situation.”
Experience wins championships and the Buckeyes’ have that by the boat load. Three of the most influential positions on the field are occupied by seniors, all of whom experienced last year’s championship game. Rooney credits his seniors for a lot of the success they’ve enjoyed this year. “It’s the continuity and it’s your players it’s the bullets you have in your gun. I have six seniors, we’ve got a senior playing flyhalf, we’ve got a senior playing fullback and we’ve got a senior playing scrumhalf. Those are all pretty important positions.”
Adlington doesn’t like to give out Man of the Matches or individual credit as he truly believes it is a 15-man effort, but he doesn’t have a problem noting same players who have stepped up. Namely Owen Sheehy their Freshman flyhalf, Ben McColgan their inside center, Luke Henricks their captain who has led the team well with his understanding of the game but situational awareness as well. Adlington has also singled out Tom Wennestrum, who is new to rugby but has been a raw talent for them.
For Wisconsin, this weekend. Discipline is key. “The big key that we’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks is discipline. Not giving penalties away, doing our bit getting onside, and getting away from the ball at the rucks. The other thing is soft turn overs. We have to make sure we maintain our patience. While for Ohio State, as Rooney noted before the set-piece is where they feel they can gain the greater advantage over their opponents.
It will be a captivating game from start to finish and with conditions expected to be hovering around freezing the elements could play as much of a role as the play of each team. It will be a tightly contested affair and it will be interesting to see if experience or youth comes out trumps in this match.