The No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers could not overcome early defensive mistakes, and with an Ohio State front seven overwhelming UW’s power running attack, they fell 27–21 in the Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night.
Now, Wisconsin (12–1) looks ahead to a Miami Hurricanes (10–2) squad filled with speed and talent, but also missing some pieces on offense. The Badgers will look to send out their seniors on a winning note once again.
Our writers discuss what went down in Indianapolis this weekend, plus what is ahead in Wisconsin’s second consecutive New Year’s Six Bowl berth.
The Good: In a rough loss, what went well against Ohio State?
Owen Riese: As always, the team displayed impressive and encouraging resiliency. I thought the game was going to end up a blowout when the Badgers went down 21–7 in the second quarter, but they were able to fight back and nearly win the damn game. A few missed tackles from being in the College Football Playoff.
Ryan Mellenthin: Regardless of the big plays, Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense stood strong against a talented foe. Late in the game, Paul Chryst decided to punt it away and trust his defense to get a stop. They delivered as they have time and time again, forcing a three-and-out. Wisconsin looked poised on their final drive and SHOULD have gotten a DPI call that would have offset their holding penalty, avoiding 1st-and-20. Getting those offsetting calls would have changed the landscape of the game dramatically and could have tipped scales in our direction.
Bob Wiedenhoeft: I tried to rewatch the game to find some specific positives, but it was a little too painful to go through so soon. There were very few positives and a whole lot of negatives due to OSU being an excellent team. OSU neutralized Jonathan Taylor and hit multiple big plays. Alex Hornibrook threw a red-zone interception that amounted to a 10-14-point swing. Wisconsin had several opportunities on offense to punish OSU’s over-aggressive defensive front through screen passes and misdirection, but rarely hit these opportunities. In spite of a nightmare scenario, Wisconsin had a chance to get the win on their last possession.
Kevin O’Connell: As crazy as it sounds, I was never too worried about this game getting out of hand, even when the Badgers went down 21–7. The defense has been so solid and reliable all season, and despite a few big plays, they largely kept the uber-talented Buckeyes in check. In fact, the most impressive part of the game was the way the whole team bounced back after falling behind early thanks to two long touchdown catches. It would have been really easy to fold in that spot, especially after last season’s Big Ten Championship Game, but the Badgers never wavered and had the opportunity to go to the College Football Playoff with one final touchdown drive.
The Bad: There were some learnings. Which pop out the most?
Owen: The Badgers are still a ways away from being equals of Ohio State from a talent perspective. Wisconsin loves their walk-ons, and for good reason, but those feel-good stories feel less good when the likes of Joe Ferguson are getting sprinted past in pass coverage. It looks to be improving, but Wisconsin is still attempting to shrink the talent gap between them and the Buckeyes.
Ryan: The biggest thing that stuck out to me is our susceptibility to allowing the big play on defense. Wisconsin allowed multiple plays of 50+ yards, the biggest difference in the game. While Wisconsin’s defense can hold the opposition usually, big plays are its major undoing. Hornibrook looked poised at moments of the game, but he crippled under pressure and threw many errant passes. In order for Wisconsin hope to return to this position next year, Hornibrook will need to be far more poised in the pocket.
Bob: Wisconsin’s offensive line is the best it’s been in years, but they are not quite back to the 2010 level that dominated the last time the Badgers beat OSU. Since they couldn’t make much separation, the Badgers did not consistently set up misdirections like jet sweeps. Because of this, Wisconsin couldn’t afford to miss on any opportunities.
Kevin: As good as Wisconsin’s secondary has been this year, they were beat over the top on a number of plays and the damage could have been worse if not for some overthrows by Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Badgers’ defensive backs also missed tackles in big spots, including missing two of them on Parris Campbell’s 57-yard catch-and-run touchdown. As was the case last year, the Badgers were snakebitten by long, explosive plays that kept the game just out of their reach.
Let’s skip game balls and talk about this season. How do you view it after Saturday’s game?
Owen: It has to be an overwhelming success. They finished the regular season undefeated, for goodness sakes. It sucks that they fell short in the Big Ten Championship Game, but they can still finish 13–1 and in the top four or five. That’s incredible.
Ryan: Regardless of the loss, it was a success. A 12–0 season followed by a six-point loss in the Big Ten championship is still a success. Wisconsin started to show some speed in the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver, which is something they have been lacking in recent years. An undefeated regular season should hopefully attract some more skilled players, making this season a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Bob: I feel about this season similarly to the 2004 season. Both teams had stellar defenses, both had inconsistent sophomore quarterbacks, both went undefeated for a long time (9–0 in 2004), and both missed a chance for a Big Ten title. The 2004 season ended in a more spectacular collapse, but it produces similar feelings. I’m happy for the ride, but I regret what could have been. 2017 has been a key step forward for this program breaking through the ceiling. The Orange Bowl would be another important step. However, 2017 could have been the definitive step forward.
Kevin: I know we all talk about Wisconsin “taking the next step” but I truly believe this season has set the table for a long run of success not just in the Big Ten but on the national stage. Despite receiving plenty of flack from doubters across the media, the fact Wisconsin has been in the national spotlight for 10+ weeks has been awesome for the program. To go 12–0, no matter how soft the schedule, is a hell of an accomplishment and something that Paul Chryst and co., should feel extremely proud about.
Up Next: Miami. Capital One Orange Bowl. What are the early keys to the Badgers sending out the seniors with a 13–1 record?
Owen: As we saw on Saturday, if Wisconsin can’t run the ball, they’re in trouble offensively. It’ll be crucial to establish the run game early vs. the Hurricanes to open up opportunities in the passing game.
Ryan: Establish. The. Run. Game. When JTT gets going, good things happen. They will also need to keep the ball and not give the Hurricanes a reason to put on their precious turnover chain.
Bob: Miami is not as good as Ohio State. I think these two teams followed a similar story this year, but Miami buckled and Wisconsin stood tall. I think if they avoid 50-plus-yard touchdowns and don’t turn the ball over more than twice, they’ve got this. I am not worried at all about establishing the run. This game could be like the 2015 Outback Bowl with respect to the run; the week after OSU bottled up Melvin Gordon (76 yards, 2.9 per carry), he exploded for 258 yards and 7.4 per carry. Finally, it’s not about beating Miami, it’s about making a statement. Doesn’t have to be a blowout to do so, but you want them to play their best game of the year.
Kevin: Miami has tons of talent but they have been so up and down this season that I’m fairly confident in Wisconsin’s chances in this game. The key will be limiting turnovers. The turnover chain has been well-documented for good reason, as the Hurricanes lead the country in turnover margin and could force Hornibrook into some difficult throws. If the Badgers can’t establish a running game, the offense could be in trouble, especially in a de facto road game.