INDIANAPOLIS – Wisconsin was as close to the College Football Playoffs as they’ve ever been. The Badgers came into the Big Ten Championship with a perfect 12-0 record and ranked No. 4 in the country. A win against Ohio State would have given them a berth in the semi-finals.
It wasn’t meant to be. The Badgers finally dug a hole too deep for themselves to climb out of. Time and time again they were a team that was much better in the second half of games than they were the first. Saturday night was much of the same for Wisconsin.
To close out the first half, Wisconsin defensive back Nick Nelson blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt off the right foot of Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger to keep the score at 21-10 in favor of Ohio State. At one point, Wisconsin faced a 14-point deficit, their largest of the season.
The Badgers were able to turn things on in the second half. They outscored Ohio State 11-6 and had the opportunity to win the game in the final two minutes. This time, they just couldn’t pull through.
Wisconsin had gotten as far as they did by managing the game in the first half and taking control in the second half. Ohio State was simply too talented for that to happen, despite Wisconsin’s best efforts.
The Buckeyes built their first half lead on big plays and speed that Wisconsin hadn’t seen to date this year. They struck first on an 84-yard touchdown pass from quarterback J.T. Barrett to wide receiver Terry McLaurin. McLaurin beat Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson deep over the middle and won a footrace to the end zone.
After Wisconsin tied the game on an Andrew Van Ginkel interception returned for a touchdown Ohio State responded with another big play. Buckeye wide receiver Parris Campbell caught a swing pass from Barrett, broke a tackle from Wisconsin safety Natrell Jamerson, and took it 57 yards for another Ohio State touchdown.
Add in a 77-yard run from running back J.K. Dobbins to set up a Barrett touchdown run from a yard out and the Badgers had given up three plays of 50 or more yards in the first half. In their first 12 games combined they had only given up three such plays.
The second half was a different story, while they still allowed a 53-yard run to Dobbins, the defense was much better. After allowing a whopping 309 yards of offense in the first half, the Badgers only gave up 140 yards in the second half, despite the 53-yard scamper. The defense looked much like it had all season after halftime, keeping Ohio State out of the end zone.
Offensively, the Badgers were never able to get their running game going. The staple of Wisconsin football was only able to muster 60 total yards on the ground. That was partly due to playing from behind and partly due to Ohio State’s defensive line having their way with Wisconsin’s offensive line. Linebackers Jerome Baker and Tuf Borland were free to make tackles. Baker finished with a team-high 16 tackles and Borland was behind him with seven.
Freshman running back Jonathan Taylor was unable to generate any running room, finishing with 41 yards on 15 carries, by far his lowest output of the season. That meant the Badgers had to rely on the arm of quarterback Alex Hornibrook. He attempted a career-high 40 passes, completing 19 of them for 229 yards and two interceptions. One interception came while searching for tight end Troy Fumagalli deep in Ohio State territory. The other pick came on the Badgers’ final offensive play, a fourth down with 20 yards to go with 1:16 on the clock.
Wisconsin was set back in the fourth and long situation due to a holding penalty on offensive lineman Michael Deiter on first down. On that same play, Hornibrook looked for wide receiver Danny Davis down the field. Davis was tangled up with an Ohio State defensive back on a play that certainly could have warranted a flag. In fact, the field judge grabbed at his penalty flag before having second thoughts.
If that penalty flag comes out, there’s no telling what happens. It might have changed the game, it might not have. It certainly made Wisconsin’s comeback effort more difficult.
In the end, everything was too much to comeback from. The slow start, the big plays, the lack of a rushing attack, the questionable no call on the final drive, it was all too much to overcome.
The Badgers simply couldn’t follow the same formula they had used to reach the Big Ten Championship to find a way to the College Football Playoffs.