INDIANAPOLIS — For 50 years, the Rose Bowl was the Holy Grail for Big Ten Conference football teams.
Playing the champion of the Pac-12 Conference (or whatever it was called over the years) in Pasadena was the focal point of every season in the Big Ten, the end game every conference team hoped to see.
That goal started changing when the Bowl Championship Series staged its first national championship game in 1998. By the time the four-team College Football Playoff opened for business in 2015, the Rose Bowl was a nice place to visit but no one wanted to live there. At least not any team with national title aspirations.
The playoffs and the national title were no longer in play for the twice-beaten University of Wisconsin football team when it met undefeated Ohio State in the Big Ten title game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Oh, by early Saturday one of television's talking heads had figured out a path for the Badgers, ranked eighth in the CFP standings and the top-rated two-loss team, to make the final four if they somehow upended the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes. But the path was so convoluted and required so many outcomes that it wasn't remotely realistic.
For the Badgers to get to the final four, well, follow along: If Oregon beat Utah, if LSU beat Georgia, if Virginia beat Clemson, if Baylor edged Oklahoma in a game where they both looked bad and if outgoing Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany could call in a favor or two on the CFP selection committee, the Badgers might sneak in. Since very little of that happened, the Badgers had to find other goals.
Suddenly, the Rose Bowl was UW's Holy Grail once again. With Ohio State already conceded a spot in the playoffs — win or lose — before the game, the Badgers set their sights on a Big Ten championship and their first Rose Bowl since they went to three straight from 2010 to 2012. But there was a problem.
Penn State, another two-loss team, was ranked 10th by the committee and was given a good chance to overtake UW and land the Big Ten's automatic bid to the Rose Bowl should the Badgers lose big to the Buckeyes. That wasn't out of the question given Ohio State's 38-7 victory over UW six weeks ago in Columbus.
Since it is risky business to predict what the selection committee will do when it announces its bowl pairings today, the Badgers wanted to take the decision out of their hands. Beating the Buckeyes would certainly do the trick and many people believed a good showing against the mighty Buckeyes would keep UW ahead of Penn State in the all-important CFP rankings.
Playing with confidence and perhaps a collective chip on its shoulder, UW produced the solid, competitive showing it needed. Now it's up to the selection committee to decide if the Badgers' 34-21 loss was good enough to send them to Pasadena.
"I think we deserve it," offensive tackle Cole Van Lanen said. "If we don’t go there, it’s out of our control, but I think it would be great. I think it is what it is if we go anywhere. I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re just excited to play another team and go all out."
The Badgers opened the game like they wanted to remove all doubt their next destination. They dominated the Buckeyes early, taking a 21-7 halftime lead and answering every Ohio State surge with one of their own.
Showing a diversified offense it didn't have in the teams' first meeting, UW hit Ohio State with a blend of breakaways rushes by running back Jonathan Taylor, first-down passes by quarterback Jack Coan and deception caused by its constant jet sweep and end around actions. The Buckeyes entered the game with the nation's top-rated defense, but they were on their heels for the entire half, giving up 294 yards, which was 64 more than their season-long average for an entire game.
UW's defense also showed up early, sacking quarterback Justin Fields three times in the half and keeping him in check on the ground. Fields, in particular, had hurt UW with his feet in Columbus. Ohio State had a long touchdown drive late in the half, but UW quickly went 75 yards in four plays to score with 10 seconds left, pushing its lead back to 14.
The second half was a different story, however, and it remains to be seen how much the committee will hold it against UW. A couple of coverage busts handed Ohio State a touchdown on the first series and two special teams mistakes handed them 10 points and the lead. By then, the Buckeyes were rolling, showing all of the power and speed on both sides of the ball that caused UW athletic director Barry Alvarez to label it the best team he's seen in the Big Ten in the last 30 years.
After getting outscored 27-0 in the second half, the Badgers now await their fate. Ohio State is the likely No. 1 overall seed and UW lost to the Buckeyes by 31 and 13 points. Penn State lost to the Buckeyes by 11 points two weeks ago. UW's loss to a .500 Illinois team works against it, while Penn State's other loss was to Minnesota, which is 18th in the CFP rankings and a team UW beat by 21 points.
One thing that might help UW is the committee has said a team shouldn't be penalized for winning its division and playing in a conference championship game. UW had to play Ohio State twice, Penn State didn't. Because they made the Buckeyes work for the win Saturday, the Badgers think they deserve to go.
"I definitely do," cornerback Caesar Williams said. "We were up pretty well in the first half. Whatever bowl we’re in, whatever is next, I know these are going to fight and we’re going to let whatever we have in us out and try to dominate the next game."
The Badgers showed enough fight against the Buckeyes that they shouldn't be dropped in the rankings, especially since Ohio State had every reason to want to run up an impressive score after fellow unbeatens LSU and Clemson had done so earlier in the day. For that reason, the Citrus Bowl won't seem like much of a prize for the Badgers if Penn State jumps ahead of them and goes to the Rose Bowl.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com.
Photos: Wisconsin Badgers can't hang with Ohio State Buckeyes in Big Ten title game