INDIANAPOLIS — The Wisconsin Badgers’ defense came into Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game having allowed only 10 points and 433 yards over its last three games.
It entered arguably the biggest game in program history leading the nation in total and rush defense (236.9 and 80.5 yards per game, respectively), and ranking second in scoring defense (12.0) and passing yards allowed (156.4 yards).
The No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes’ offensive speed and talent would be the hardest challenge Wisconsin faced this year, and for the first half of Saturday night’s 27–21 loss inside Lucas Oil Stadium, after a season of dominating opponents, the Badgers’ defense broke rather than bent in allowing four key plays that heavily influenced the game’s outcome.
It was uncharacteristic for this unit, but the defense’s effort also kept the team in the game right up until Wisconsin’s final offensive drive.
“We normally don’t give up big plays and we did today, so it’s something we have to address,” inside linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “When you give up big plays like that early on, you put our offense in a bind, and we kind of did that towards the end.
“I thought we fixed in the second half and played better, but to play a half like that in the first, you’re not going to win against these teams like this.”
The Badgers allowed a season-high 449 yards—309 in the first half alone—with two big passes and a run in the first two quarters that gouged the defense in a fashion not often seen during the 2017 season.
In all, four “chunk” plays totaled 271 of Ohio State’s 449 yards in the loss that crushed Wisconsin’s chances at a College Football Playoff spot.
“They just made some good plays,” inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said after leading the Badgers in tackles (nine). “They have some explosive guys and they exposed us a little bit here and there, and they capitalized on those plays I’d say.”
Two completions gained 141 yards, both touchdowns, and with two long runs by true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins that tallied 130 yards, a couple of factors played into it.
“Just guys were out of the gaps some of the time and some missed tackles, a little of both,” Connelly said.
Head coach Paul Chryst echoed similar sentiments.
“Well I think if you look back at it, one, it’s a good offense,” Chryst said. “There’s going to be times where you, whether it’s a tackle in space or everyone’s got to be in that gap, and they made some plays. Certainly some big ones, and credit to them, but guys kept coming back and playing.
“We certainly felt like they were a good offense and they were going to make some plays, and we just had to keep playing.”
Wisconsin’s defense had been dominant in sudden-change situations, allowing only six scores (three touchdowns and three field goals) over 18 drives. Alex Hornibrook’s red-zone interception in the first quarter forced Ohio State into a 3rd-and-7 from Ohio State’s 7-yard line. Barrett, despite undergoing surgery on his knee earlier in the week, scrambled and eluded Alec James’s tackle to move the chains.
One play later, Barrett found Terry McLaurin with safety Joe Ferguson apparently in coverage for an 84-yard touchdown. That four-play, 96-yard drive was the longest in conference championship game history, with the touchdown itself the second longest in the game’s history.
It wasn’t all bad for Wisconsin’s defense in the first half, as it appeared to atone for the early blunder by tying up the game at 7–7 when it got back on the field.
On Ohio State’s next offensive possession, Barrett rolled right on 2nd-and-7 and threw into the flat. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel reached out and snagged the pass, and returned it nine yards for Wisconsin’s fifth pick-six of the season.
“He was flying around. It was good to see,” Connelly said. “On that play, he was just doing his job, running to the flat. [Barrett] literally threw it right to him and he did his job, caught it and scored.”
That's the No. 1 defense in the country y'all pic.twitter.com/ICsNmucx7e— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) December 3, 2017
Yet the defense would allow another big touchdown when it got back on the field, and like the first score allowed, it was on a four-play drive that ended with a big pass.
On a 2nd-and-10 from the OSU 43-yard line, Barrett threw a bubble screen out to Parris Campbell. Senior safety Natrell Jamerson and redshirt junior cornerback Nick Nelson both missed key opportunities to halt the wide receiver before he hit the open field.
Fifty-seven yards later, Wisconsin found itself trailing once again, 14–7.
Two drives later, Ohio State showcased its burst in the rushing game with Dobbins’s 77-yard run that led to Barrett’s one-yard push across the goal line to make it a 21–7 advantage.
On that big run, which helped Dobbins rush for 174 yards on 17 carries and earn the game’s Most Valuable Player accolade, senior defensive end Conor Sheehy missed a tackle, with no one behind him to stop the true freshman from sprinting down the field.
“[We] did some uncharacteristic things tonight, but that’s a really good football team with a lot of good playmakers that can hurt you in a lot of different ways,” Edwards said. “I thought we played a great second half, but we didn’t play a good first half as a defense to get it done.”
For the most part, Wisconsin did its part in the second half, and even towards the end of the first 30 minutes of the game. Van Ginkel showed up once again, stripping Mike Weber with about five-and-a-half minutes remaining in the second quarter, recovering the fumble that eventually led to Rafael Gaglianone’s 28-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 21–10.
In the final 30 minutes, Wisconsin held Ohio State to only six points and 140 yards. Dobbins’ second big run of the game, the 53-yarder in the third quarter, led to a Buckeyes 27-yard field goal to push the lead to 24–13.
Following that, the longest play Wisconsin gave up was a 12-yard completion. It also forced Barrett’s second interception of the game that led to the team’s first offensive touchdown of the game.
On a 3rd-and-4, Barrett rolled out to the right and threw to tight end Marcus Baugh. It bounced off his hands and right into the arms of outside linebacker Leon Jacobs.
“I think we all take pride in our defense, so I don’t think we were going to let it just slip away from us,” Connelly said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less of these guys to respond any other way.”
Though a late field goal after a 15-play, 79-yard drive that shaved over seven minutes off the clock gave Ohio State the six-point advantage it would not relinquish, Wisconsin’s defense adjusted like it had throughout this season.
Wisconsin held Ohio State to zero touchdowns in the final two quarters, the first time the Buckeyes did not find the end zone in the second half this season.
Barrett only completed 12 of 26 passes for 211 yards with the two touchdowns and two interceptions, and he also missed three more big passes—two potential scores in the first half, and a throw to Dobbins in the flat on Ohio State’s second-to-last drive that would have sealed the win.
That allowed the Badgers to stay in the game until the very end, but the uncharacteristic, surprising lack of execution seen in the first half set a tone that was hard to overcome.
“I thought we fought like crazy but we gave up those big plays, those big runs,” Edwards said. “You’re not going to beat teams like this.”