INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — It was right there. Well, not right there. Try 43 yards away. That’s what Wisconsin needed trailing Ohio State 27-21 with 1:28 left in Saturday night’s Big Ten title game.
Forty-three yards from a conference championship.
Forty-three yards from a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Forty-three yards from being able to shut up every national expert that had trashed Wisconsin and its 12-0 record.
Forty-three yards from pushing the program from the quaint little story that everyone knows about but doesn’t necessarily respect to a program that knocked off a blue blood outfit on its way to playing on the biggest stage the college game has to offer.
Alas, Wisconsin was unable to cover that 43 yards. A holding penalty pushed the Badgers back 10 yards, which was followed by three Alex Hornibrook incompletions and a game-clinching interception by Ohio State safety Damon Webb.
Final score: Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 21.
“That’s what hurts the most. Being able to get this far and come up short,” Hornibrook said afterward. “Seeing them celebrating on the field afterwards. That could have been us. That definitely hurts.”
This was not the game Wisconsin, or anyone that’s watched the Badgers this year, was expecting. The defense, ranked No. 1 in the country coming in, gave up big plays in abundance, including 84- and 57-yard touchdown passes. Missed tackles and blown assignments allowed running back J.K. Dobbins to run for 174 yards, including a 77-yard scamper in the second quarter.
On the other side of the ball, the offensive line struggled with the vaunted front seven of Ohio State. A running game that had dominated much of the year, managed a season-low 60 yards. Wisconsin threw screen after screen to try and slow the pass rush down, but it only kept them at bay so long and Hornibrook was sacked three times. When he did have enough time to throw, he hit on just 19 of his 40 passes and threw a pair of picks.
It certainly wasn’t all bad. Wisconsin forced three turnovers, including a pick-6 by outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett completed only 46.2 percent of his passes and averaged just 3.2 yards per rush.
Freshman Danny Davis continued to show the playmaking skills that have so many excited about his future, while the Badgers and senior Austin Ramesh (50 total yards) reintroduced America to the fullback.
And the fight they showed in coming back from a 21-7 deficit, not getting down when they came out on the wrong side of game-altering plays, and even getting a late stop to give the offense one more chance, were right in line with what the identity of the team has been. The cliché terms you use for teams like this — resilient, gritty, hard-nosed — all apply and fit well. And it’s why it hurts so much more when you come up short like they did.
“There’s no doubt,” coach Paul Chryst said when asked if stings a little bit more when you’re so close to something so special. “You got an opportunity to win the Big Ten Championship. And that’s significant. And we knew there were other things (playoff).”
Chryst wanted nothing to do with describing where his team or his program currently reside. A reporter asked what the state of Wisconsin football is right now and the third-year coach responded, “We’re 12-1.” Pushed further with what the state of the program overall is, Chryst answered, “Proud to be here.”
Both were predictable answers from a coach that — thankfully — isn’t the one-line machine that some of his predecessors were. But we didn’t need an answer from him. We know exactly what Wisconsin is after Saturday night. A very good program that missed out on what was a rare chance to make it into the playoff and show they belong among the top schools in the country. A missed opportunity where seemingly everything had come together to give them their best chance to compete for a national title. A veteran defense, exciting playmakers on offense, and yes, a favorable schedule. They’ve had chances like this before, but nothing where the payoff would be so big.
Let’s be clear — the loss does not make the season a failure. Going 12-1 and winning the Big Ten West is special and Wisconsin will have a chance to play in a New Year’s Six game once again. And it’s certainly possible the Badgers could be back in a similar position at some point, but that means nothing right now. This was a potential program-changing moment and they couldn’t capitalize.