It’s hard to put into words the atmosphere of a championship game. The culmination of work ethic has reached a fevered pitch, expectations loom like an omnipresent cloud and each team has absolutely everything to lose. Saturday night in Indianapolis was all this and more. Wisconsin, in the midst of a historic season, was ranked among the top four nationally and looked to protect an undefeated season, both firsts for the school.
Early on, both sides focused on the rush attack, feeding their work horses in an attempt to control the rush attack in their first drives. With two of the best rush defenses in the nation, whoever controlled the run game controlled the momentum. After a three-and-out each, Alex Hornibrook and the undefeated Badgers compiled their trademark drive, picking up five yards here, 15 yards there, eventually working their way into a historically well-protected red zone. Almost on queue, Hornibrook threw his obligatory INT when he under-threw Troy Fumagalli down the right sideline. The Wisconsin defense seemed in the midst of a characteristic response, but the versatile J.T. Barrett squirmed his way for a much-needed third down conversion, following up the scramble with an 84-yard TD strike that left Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin untouched for an early and ominous score.
If history is any indication, Hornibrook’s mistakes are to be taken with a grain of salt. In essence, he’s consistently found a way to both lead the Wisconsin offense and win games.
After a Wisconsin drive that ended in a blasé punt, Ohio State controlled the ball within their own 5. Haunted by the 84-yard TD that come a drive earlier, the Wisconsin defense made sure to plug all possible defensive holes. When the drive looked as though it’d end in a punt, Andrew Van Ginkel revitalized the Wisconsin energy level, snagging an errant pass from Barrett and waltzing into the end zone to tie the game at 7.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Wisconsin defense stepped up after the offense couldn’t deliver. Igniting a fire under the Badgers was needed at no better time, and just like that the game of the year was all knotted up.
The comfort of a tie was short-lived. On the ensuing Ohio State drive, Barrett connected with RB Parris Campbell who, after elementary missed tackles by Nick Nelson and Natrell Jamerson, broke loose for a 57-yard score to reclaim the lead. Images of last year’s matchup versus Penn State began to accumulate in the minds of the Badger faithful.
After both sides exchanged punts, J.K. Dobbins broke a crucial tackle at the line, racking up 77 yards before being forced out of bounds at the last possible moment at the Wisconsin one yard-line. J.T. Barrett would break the goal line plane easily on the ensuing play, extending the Ohio State lead to 14.
It wasn’t as though Ohio State was outplaying Wisconsin. Rather, Wisconsin was gifting the Buckeyes with enormous yardage gains stemming from missed tackles and blown coverages. The first half was far from characteristic Wisconsin defense, for the first time all year both sides of the ball were to blame for the early struggles.
After the highlight reel of Wisconsin’s “what if” plays reached an unbearable length, it felt as though the majority of the crowd knew Ohio State was in absolute control. With less than six minutes remaining in the half, and on the heels of a Fumagalli drop that would’ve extended a Wisconsin scoring effort, Ohio State began their drive on their own eight. Heroically, Andrew Van Ginkel stripped Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins and gave Wisconsin an incredibly short field to work with before the halftime whistle. Unable to rack up a touchdown, Gaglianone would nail a 28-yard field goal, trimming the Ohio State lead to 11.
At the half, Wisconsin should have thanked all conceivable Gods they were only down 11. After watching three touchdown passes sail through the hands of wide-open Ohio State receivers, there was much to discuss in the Wisconsin locker room.
Hoping for a revitalized second half, Wisconsin forced a quick three-and-out that kept the lead steady at 11. Danny Davis gave Wisconsin a great boost after hauling in a 33-yard pass on the best ball thrown by Hornibrook all night. Ohio State’s defense stepped up, cleanly breaking up successive pass attempts, and Wisconsin would settle for a Gaglianone field goal to chip away at the lead, shaving it to eight at that point.
J.K. Dobbins would do his best to shut down any Wisconsin momentum, picking up 55 yards up the middle during the next drive. Ohio State’s opportunity to extend their lead by seven was negated by intense quarterback pressure, something missing desperately from the first half. Ohio State would convert their field goal attempt, and the lead was back to 11.
If there was one thing to glean from Saturday night’s thriller, it was that Ohio State wasn’t necessarily beating Wisconsin in the conventional sense, rather Wisconsin was beating themselves by allowing such easy access to huge chunks of yardage.
Leon Jacobs’ late third quarter interception righted a sinking Wisconsin ship even for just a moment, preserving the glimmer of hope still faint in the eyes of the Badger faithful. Trickery was Wisconsin’s greatest ally early in the fourth. On a misdirection that swung Garrett Groshek to the right, Alex Hornibrook slunk undetected past the line of scrimmage where Groshek connected on a picture perfect pass putting Wisconsin within the Ohio State five. Chris James would plow through the defensive line, legitimately tearing up the turf at the goal line. After a maintenance delay, Wisconsin would convert on a two-point conversion, and just like that the Ohio State lead was just three.
With a touch over five minutes remaining in regulation, and after a pivotal fourth down conversion from Ohio State, the Buckeyes were well within field goal range, contemplating an attempt at a fourth down conversion. An eventual field goal pushed the lead to 6, effectively daring Wisconsin to score a touchdown in the time that remained.
For a moment it felt like Wisconsin had a chance to claim their first lead of the ballgame, but an eventual punt made those chances ever slimmer. A clutch shutdown of the Ohio State offense gave Wisconsin one final breath, one final shot at victory. With just over two minutes remaining, Wisconsin was driving, picking up consecutive first downs. On a 1st and 10 across midfield, Hornibrook rolled to his left, seeking Danny Davis downfield, inching closer to the goal line. Davis appeared to be tripped up before being given the chance to make a play on the ball, and the apparent relief of a whistle rang out over the crowd. Unfortunately, the call was against Wisconsin, a holding penalty that would all but sink Wisconsin’s ship. On a last ditch effort to pick up the necessary 20 yards to convert, Hornibrook aired the ball out to his steady tight end Fumagalli, only to see the ball sail over his head and into the waiting arms of the Ohio State defense.
27-21 was the final from Indianapolis, with the announcement of Wisconsin’s bowl matchup to come later.
Photo courtesy of foxsports.com