The return of junior quarterback Braxton Miller to a talented Ohio State offense, coupled with a young front seven suffocating a potent Wisconsin rushing game and taking advantage of several Wisconsin miscues, lead the Buckeyes to a 31-24 victory Saturday night in Columbus. This despite senior linebacker Chris Borland and the Badgers' late-game attempt to come back into a contest that was at one point a three-score game.
Miller, coming back from injury, lead an offense that gained 390 yards against Wisconsin, completing 17 of his 25 passes for 198 yards and four touchdowns, the first four touchdown passes Wisconsin's defense has allowed all season. The junior also contributed 83 of Ohio State's 194 rushing yards against a defense that came in ranked sixth in the nation in total defense.
The nationally-acclaimed Badgers' running game, averaging almost 350 yards per game coming into the biggest game of the year so far this season with the combination of senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon, the latter of whom was injured in the third quarter and did not return, was held to 104 total yards on the ground by a young Ohio State front seven led by junior linebacker Ryan Shazier.
The severity of Gordon's injury is not known at this moment, but it pressed White into a continuous on-field presence during the last quarter, who did score a 17-yard touchdown early in the fourth to make it 31-21 with 13:47 remaining in the game.
That put the burden on the passing game and sophomore quarterback Joel Stave, who did not fold under pressure. Forced into more passing situations than previous weeks, Stave threw for 295 yards on 20 of 34 passes with two touchdowns but one costly interception, which led to a key Miller touchdown pass to put the Buckeyes up 17 in the third quarter.
Although scoring 10 unanswered points against the Buckeyes' defense in the fourth quarter to bring it within seven points at 31-24, Wisconsin's last drive floundered and hopes for a comeback were extinguished as senior wide receiver Jeff Duckworth dropped a fourth down conversion deep in its own territory.
The first half was marred by Wisconsin penalties and the Ohio State offense getting the best of their mistakes. After a quick 3-and-out in the first series of the game by the Badgers offense, Miller drove the Buckeyes 55 yards in only 4 plays, connecting with junior wide receiver Evan Spencer on a 25-yard touchdown pass against true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who had to choose his poison with having to cover two receivers going in opposite directions.
Miller struck again later in the first quarter, hitting junior wide receiver Devin Smith for a 26-yard touchdown against junior cornerback Peniel Jean to make it a 14-7 Ohio State lead.
Stave and the offense answered back, though, hitting senior Jared Abbrederis for a 36-yard touchdown pass and junior tight end Sam Arneson on a 11-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 17-14 towards the end of the first half. Abbrederis had a career day, catching 10 balls for 207 yards and a score against a defense that knew Stave would be targeting him throughout the game.
However, Miller drove down the field with a 1:29 and took advantage of a dropped interception by Shelton with a 40-yard touchdown pass to senior wide out Corey "Philly" Brown the very next play, in between blown coverage by Jean and senior safety Dezmen Southward to make it 24-14 at half.
Despite a rough first half where the defense gave up three touchdown passes, and two turnovers were negated due penalties called (one a a 15-yard face mask penalty against senior linebacker Conor O'Neill, and another on a muffed punt return called back due to an illegal formation penalty), Borland and company stood their ground in a gritty second-half performance as they gave up only seven points and less than 125 yards to the Buckeyes in the third and fourth quarters combined. Borland himself led this team, not only in spirit but in tackles with 16 stops, stuffing several key runs including a Herculean-like fourth-down collision with senior running back Carlos Hyde in the third quarter.
The special teams did not help Wisconsin at all. Junior kicker Kyle French missed wide left on a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter, adding more concern to the kicking game. Sophomore punter Drew Meyer averaged just over 40 yards per punt, allowing decent field position for Ohio State to work with.
Wisconsin started 11 of their 13 drives from at or behind their own 25-yard line, while Ohio State started from mid-field a few times.
Like the 31-13 Buckeyes' victory over the Badgers in 2009, Stave and company gained more total yards than the Buckeyes, 399 to 300. Unfortunately, Wisconsin received the same result as five seasons ago in the loss column, albeit a closer affair.
Head coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers have a week off to regroup before facing No.17/No. 16 (AP/USA Today Coaches' Poll) Northwestern at Camp Randall on October 5th.