INDIANAPOLIS — In the biggest game in Wisconsin football history, the Badgers fell behind quickly before mounting the sort of comeback this team has become known for.
After falling behind 21–7 in the first half, the Badgers were able to scratch, claw, and fight back to within a three-point deficit in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes, however, held on for a 27–21 win at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Sunday night.
The Badgers’ defense surrendered an excruciatingly close 4th-and-1 before forcing another fourth down, this time from the three-yard line. A field goal by the Buckeyes put them ahead 27–21, giving Wisconsin seemingly one last chance to capture a Big Ten championship and reach the College Football Playoff for the first time in program history.
They were able to manage a first down, but eventually wound up punting the ball back to the Buckeyes with 3:29 and three timeouts remaining. Sophomore Anthony Lotti pinned the Buckeyes at their own 11-yard line. After three rushes by Ohio State, Wisconsin got the ball back with 2:53 and one last-gasp effort remaining.
On 3rd-and-7, Hornibrook found Troy Fumagalli for a first down. He found him again on the next play for a gain of seven. He found A.J. Taylor on the next play for a first down. After a holding penalty on Wisconsin’s Michael Deiter (which was a hold) and a missed flag on Ohio State’s Kendall Sheffield (which was pass interference), the Badgers faced a 1st-and-20 from their own 47-yard line.
After three incompletions, the Badgers’ hopes came down to one, single, solitary play.
It was picked off.
Alex Hornibrook, in an act of desperation, threw his second pick of the game, ending the Badgers’ comeback and Big Ten title hopes.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Wisconsin can’t make mistakes
A team like Wisconsin that plays with such a razor-thin margin for error in nearly every game can’t turn the ball over and miss opportunities if it wants to beat a more-talented Ohio State team. It made those mistakes on Saturday, and it hurt. The two interceptions, along with the big drop from Fumagalli and several errant throws from a hurried and pressured Hornibrook, took away the chance Wisconsin had to win this game.
2. Ohio State is more talented than Wisconsin
OK, so we already knew this. But it was blatantly obvious during the first half how much more athletic and explosive the Buckeyes are in all facets than the Badgers. The Buckeyes have game-breaking speed. The Badgers (sans Jonathan Taylor) do not. This plays, again, into the razor-thin margin for error Wisconsin plays with. Ohio State will continue to be an elite recruiting program, and while Wisconsin is seemingly improving, the gap is pretty significant and likely will be for some time.
3. The best is yet to come for the Badgers
Not to be lost in the magnitude of the game, the Wisconsin Badgers were one drive away from being 13–0 Big Ten champions and playing in the College Football Playoff. While the defense will suffer some pretty significant personnel losses, the offense only loses two senior starters, Austin Ramesh and Fumagalli. While their careers are not over, the program is headed in the right direction, even if it hurts right now.
The Wisconsin Badgers football program will continue to improve and get better. It’s too well-coached not to. However, as we’ve seen the past two years, the Badgers are still recovering from the lack of roster depth and recruiting deficiencies prior to Paul Chryst coming back to Madison.