College football: Ohio State will make it nine in a row against Wisconsin

·4 min read

Sep. 23—COLUMBUS — It has been 12 years since Ohio State has returned a kickoff for a touchdown and eight years since it has scored on a punt return.

Measured another way, it has been 4,319 days since OSU has scored on a kickoff and 2,863 days since it did that on a punt return.

At a school where Ted Ginn Jr. scored touchdowns on six punt returns and two kickoff returns in his four years as a Buckeye, this seems hard to believe.

In a football program where every coach in the last dozen years has emphasized special teams and two of them, Urban Meyer and Jim "The Punt Is the Most Important Play in Football" Tressel, were fanatics about special teams, it is almost incomprehensible.

The last time Ohio State scored on a kickoff return was in the Michigan game in 2010 when Jordan Hall went 85 yards for a touchdown in a 37-7 OSU win.

The last Ohio State player to score on a punt return was Jalin Marshall, who went 54 yards for a touchdown in a 42-27 win over Indiana in 2014.

That's a long time. But is scoring on kickoff and punt returns really that big of a deal?

Ohio State has won 87 percent of its games since its last touchdown on a kickoff return and 90 percent of the time since its last punt return for a score.

There's also the injury factor to consider.

When Ohio State sends Emeka Egbuka out to return kickoffs and Jaxon Smith-Njigba out to return punts, is the potential return on investment worth the risk? It was no bargain for Michigan last year when it lost its best receiver, Ronnie Bell, for the season on a punt return in its opener against Western Michigan.

Even the great return men like Ginn deliver a touchdown less than 10 percent of the time. Ginn scored on 6 of the 64 punts he fielded at OSU and on 2 of the 38 kickoffs he received.

That's better odds than when you buy Mega Millions or Powerball tickets but they're not great odds.

The ideal kick return is one that delivers points and a psychological boost for the team doing the returning.

A timely example of this kind of return, with Wisconsin coming to Ohio Stadium to play No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday, was the Badgers' David Gilreath taking the opening kickoff and returning it 97 yards for a touchdown in a 31-18 upset win for Wisconsin over Ohio State in 2010 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin never lost the lead after its stunning start. An already hyped up Wisconsin crowd lost its collective mind. And OSU, ranked No. 1 at the time, eventually lost the chance to play for the national championship because of that loss, its only defeat of the 2010 season.

Ohio State has won eight games in a row against Wisconsin, including three Big Ten Championship games. But five of those eight wins have been by a touchdown or less.

OSU (3-0) is an 18-point favorite over the Badgers, who haven't won in Columbus since 2004.

For more than 30 years, the capsule description of Wisconsin football teams has been big offensive linemen, good running backs and a solid defense.

This year's Badgers (2-1) fit that description with one possible difference. They're trying to emphasize their passing game a little more. They have three-year starter Graham Mertz at quarterback. They have some young receivers they like. And they have hired former Penn State and NFL receiver Bobby Engram as their offensive coordinator.

Running back Braelon Allen, who ran for 1,268 yards last season as a freshman, remains the centerpiece of the offense.

Mertz, who came into this season with 19 career touchdown passes and 16 interceptions, has completed 70 percent of his passes for six touchdowns with only two interceptions.

Two of the Badgers' wins have been against questionable competition, FCS Illinois State and winless New Mexico State. It lost 17-14 to Washington State in its other game.

Ohio State is coming off a 77-21 win over Toledo in which it rolled up 763 yards of total offense. It leads the nation in total offense at 565.3 yards per game.

OSU will face a significantly sterner test from Wisconsin this week. Wisconsin might stay close for a while, but the Buckeyes should extend their winning streak over the Badgers to nine games.

The prediction: Ohio State 38, Wisconsin 21.

Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.