INDIANAPOLIS — The stakes were right out there for all to see, having been talked to death in the national media all week.
For Ohio State, it was a chance to earn a spot in the new four-team College Football Playoff. For the University of Wisconsin, it was an opportunity to put a cherry on top of Melvin Gordon’s Heisman Trophy candidacy.
But if those storylines dominated the national discussion prior to the fourth Big Ten Conference championship game, the local discussion was considerably different, especially once the weekend’s results started trickling in.
When Alabama, Oregon and TCU — three of the four teams ahead of Ohio State in the CFP poll — all won handily, the Buckeyes’ chances of cracking the top four took a hit even before the Big Ten final began (the fourth team, Florida State, won later). And with the selection committee’s ability to hold the season-ending injury to quarterback J.T. Barrett against the Buckeyes, their window to the final four seemed to be closing fast.
As for Gordon, he needed Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota to stumble or his Ducks team to lose in the Pac-12 title game in their two-man Heisman race. Neither happened, meaning Gordon needed to do something truly remarkable against Ohio State to catch Mariota.
Those results seemingly turned the conference title game between Ohio State and UW into a battle for Big Ten supremacy and not much more. The Buckeyes were 24-0 in regular-season conference games in three seasons under coach Urban Meyer but hadn’t won a Big Ten title. The Badgers had won three of the previous four Big Ten titles and are well-positioned to become Ohio State’s regular dance partner in the title game with their move to the West Division.
Instead of the game changing the Big Ten pecking order, however, the unthinkable happened Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium. Sixth-ranked Ohio State’s 59-0 victory over 11th-ranked UW was so overwhelming the Buckeyes climbed right back into the playoff picture. Despite having a third-string quarterback Cardale Jones making his first college start, the impressive Buckeyes rolled to a 38-0 halftime lead, making the committee’s life more difficult and putting the growing divide between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten on display for all to see.
In three long hours, UW lost the Big Ten title, a possible spot in a New Year’s Six bowl and any chance Gordon had of becoming the school’s third Heisman winner. The Badgers will still have a good postseason destination — think Outback or Holiday bowls — but that wasn’t what they were aiming for Saturday.
“You can’t see this coming at all,” safety Michael Caputo said. “It hits you like a freight train.”
By the time the train had passed, Ohio State had handed UW its worst defeat since it lost to Ohio State by the same score in 1979. Remember, this was a UW team that hadn’t lost a game by more than 10 points since early in the 2009 season.
“It is embarrassing,” linebacker Marcus Trotter said. “But we’ve just go to learn from this. On the football field and in life as well, you have a lot of adversity. You can’t put your head down.”
UW had been listed as the favorite after Ohio State lost Barrett to injury in its final regular-season game. It took only a few plays for the Buckeyes to show Las Vegas the error of its ways. They scored on their sixth play and never stopped, keeping their foot to the floorboard in a last-ditch effort to impress the selection committee.
No one knows what the committee is thinking, but everyone else had to be impressed with the Buckeyes. Meyer had vowed to build a speed-based, skill-oriented, SEC-style program at Ohio State and said Friday he was close to getting there. The Buckeyes may have taken the final step against UW.
The Badgers had Gordon at halfback and their fastest defense in memory, but the Buckeyes made them look painfully slow. Gordon was limited to 76 yards on 26 carries in a game that showed how much he has propped up the Badgers this season. Meanwhile, the Badgers defense, ranked No. 2 in the nation, was a step behind the Buckeyes all night.
UW’s best hope was that Jones, who had never taken meaningful snaps at Ohio State, wouldn’t be able to throw very well and the Buckeyes’ offense would become one-dimensional. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder had a reputation as a strong-armed-but-inaccurate thrower.
The Badgers’ defense had faced a succession of run-first and second-string quarterbacks during the season and its pass defense had been exposed a bit by Iowa’s Jake Rudock two weeks ago. When Jones completed all three of his passes for 56 yards — including a 39-yard touchdown strike to Smith — on Ohio State’s opening possession, the Badgers were doomed.
“It hurts,” Gordon said. “We played some tough games to get to where we are today and to come out and finish like this, it (stinks). The most important game, we didn’t play Wisconsin football.”
The lopsided game showed UW — and the rest of the Big Ten — have a long way to go before they catch up to Ohio State.