MADISON — With the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in town to face the Wisconsin Badgers, the Camp Randall lights shining brightly through the Saturday evening on the isthmus and 81,541 faithful packed into their seats, nervous anticipation built as the overtime battle came down to a decisive fourth-down play.
The blitz from the defense came. The quarterback, battling through a contest full of ups and downs, dropped back. He pump-faked as the pocket collapsed. He stumbled backwards, falling down. He did not get the throw off. The game ended, and a flurry of elated onlookers dashed toward their victorious men on the field.
But there was one caveat on this night for the Badgers: Rather than the cardinal-clad students streaming onto the turf from the north end zone, the rush of bodies came from the east sideline.
And they were donning white, scarlet and gray.
Those Buckeyes had the final say on Saturday night. They erased a 10-point halftime deficit, grabbing the lead in overtime with a seven-yard strike from quarterback JT Barrett to receiver Noah Brown and stifling the Badgers offense on the ensuing possession to win, 30-23.
How to sum up the night?
“Very disappointing,” running back Corey Clement said. “Especially when it comes down to overtime and we get another four tries at punching it into the endzone.
“Sometimes you either beat the heavyweight champion or you don’t.”
The sun was shining somewhere, but surely not amidst the approaching thunderstorms at the Camp. The band was playing somewhere, but that somewhere was not the home of the Badgers, with those rains canceling the postgame festivities.
No, there was no joy in Madison.
“This one hurts,” quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who led the Badgers on a go-ahead fourth quarter drive before stumbling short in overtime, said. “We had a lead in the first half and some of the second half. To come that close, our team played great, we just couldn’t finish there at the end. To come that close and not come out on top hurts.”
Overtime represented one untimed period of frustration for Wisconsin. Penalties on the Buckeyes forced their offense to gain 40 yards in order to score a touchdown to open the first overtime, which they did on the crushing back-shoulder to Brown.
In response, a 21-yard Hornibrook pass to tightrope-walking receiver Rob Wheelwright put the Badgers at the four yard line. Four promising cracks to tie the game turned into four cracks, zero yards, one loss.
Two Clement carries failed to gain any ground and bookended an incomplete pass by Hornibrook. On fourth down, the Buckeyes’ pressure bore down on the redshirt freshman. Nothing developed downfield, Hornibrook was sacked and Wisconsin’s playoff hopes were crushed.
“I think there's a lot of guts on this team,” Chryst said. “This group cares about each other. They also want to be the best football player they can be and contribute to this team. I think we've got a ton of guys. Alex is one of them.
“You know what, that's why it hurts this group. In a weird way, you appreciate that it hurts them because they put it all out there.”
After jumping out a 16-6 first half lead, the Badgers were in for a turn of events coming out of the locker room. Barrett rushed for two touchdowns to give Ohio State a 20-16 advantage with 14:09 remaining in regulation.
On the night, Barrett threw for 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception while hurting the Badgers with his legs for 92 rushing yards, as well.
“He can do it all,” linebacker TJ Watt said. “He can run, he can throw and he trusts all his players. I think he showed that tonight.”
As Ohio State made its comeback on Wisconsin, the Badgers gained just 11 yards on 11 plays in the third quarter.
“That was not how you'd want to do it,” Chryst said. “You know, we didn't have anything going.”
But, trailing 20-16, back came the Badgers.
One drive removed from an interception on an overthrown pass to Wheelwright that led to Ohio State’s go-ahead score via a Barrett eight-yard run on the second play of the fourth quarter, Hornibrook led the Badgers on an 81-yard, 6:11 drive to reclaim a 23-20 lead. Facing a third-and-nine from the Wisconsin 20, Hornibrook found receiver Jazz Peavy down the field for a 33-yard completion to spark the drive. From there, Clement and fellow running backs Dare Ogunbowale and Bradrick Shaw rumbled down to the four, where, with 7:57 left on the clock, fullback Austin Ramesh broke through for the touchdown.
But there, once again, was Barrett, that savvy quarterback. Spearheaded by a 43-yard pass to Dontre Wilson, the Buckeyes marched down the field to tie the game with 3:57 left in the fourth quarter on kicker Tyler Durbin’s third field goal of the game.
Facing the second-ranked Buckeyes, Wisconsin fed off the frenzied crowd to the tune of a 16-6 halftime lead. Not intimidated by the vaunted Ohio State defense in the least, the Badgers averaged eight yards per play and picked up 313 total yards in the first half alone.
A healthy chunk of that yardage came on a four-play, 95 yard drive that consumed just 1:08 on the game clock but much more time on a pins-and-needles review.
Clement burst free through the left side with the Badgers pinned at their own five, but linebacker Chris Worley chased the tailback down at the end of the 68-yard scamper and stripped the ball. The Buckeyes recovered the loose ball, but a review of the play overturned the call, showing that Clement’s left foot was out of bounds when the fumble touched him.
Camp Randall released a collective sigh of relief. Three plays later, Hornibrook found Peavy on a seam route in the face of a blitz for a 24-yard touchdown.
Clement rushed for a game-high 164 yards on 25 attempts as Wisconsin totaled 236 yards on the ground as a team.
“I allowed myself to be patient,” Clement said. “Just working with those guys, it’s been there all season. I had to do my part and just allow myself to be patient, allow holes to open up. Today was one of the best days that I’ve felt.”
Wisconsin also received a huge boost offensively from a likely source, but in an unlikely form. Peavy jet-sweeped through the Buckeyes’ defense throughout the night, picking up 70 yards on six carries in addition to his 76 reception yards on four grabs.
“That was just how the game was going,” Peavy said. “Coach just let me know we were going to ride the hot horse, and we did that until they stopped it”
Kicker Andrew Endicott connected on attempts of 22, 36 and 46 yards to pad Wisconsin’s first-half lead, but the Badgers left ever-valuable points on the field against one of the nation’s elite teams.
“I thought that even at the end of the half,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “You don’t know when those chances, opportunities come in a game. We knew when they come, you’ve got to take advantage of them.”
Twice in the first half the Badgers had first-and-goal opportunities that failed to result in touchdowns, as a holding call wiped out one score while incompletions thwarted the other. First-and-goal wasn’t too friendly to Wisconsin in overtime, either.
Hornibrook completed 16 of 28 passes for 214 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It was a step forward for Hornibrook after struggling heavily in a 14-7 loss at No. 4 Michigan two weeks prior.
The result for the Badgers, however, was the same: a chance at a season-defining upset victory culminating in nothing more than a bitter taste and thoughts of ‘what-if.’
“It still hurts, just the fact that we lost,” Peavy said. “But we’ve always known that we’re a team that can hang with any team in this country and it just sucks that that’s how this one ended up.”
Hang with one of the best teams in the country, the Badgers did. Make the necessary plays to launch a campus-wide celebration? Not so much.