COLUMBUS, Ohio — There was little doubt as to the strategy Ohio State’s defense would employ Saturday night. Wisconsin’s running game was so good, so powerful that the only way to stop it was to load the box with eight players and make the Badgers do something they had not done well all season — pass the football.
In theory, it was a move that could have rendered Wisconsin’s offense helpless. But Badgers quarterback Joel Stave played arguably the best game of his young career during No. 4 Ohio State’s 31-24 victory against No. 23 Wisconsin.
Perhaps it was of little consolation to players who saw their hopes of a fourth straight Big Ten championship trickle away. It was, however, a big step for Stave, who completed 20 of 34 passes for a career-best 295 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
“I thought he played well,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s nice to get the protection and when the protection broke down, we have to get better at that. Play-action was good. I thought he got rid of the ball well, made good decisions for the most part. . . . Joel is improving.”
UW running backs Melvin Gordon and James White entered the contest marked men after slicing up their first four opponents this season. Gordon led the country in rushing yards per game (156.0), and White proved nearly as elusive (110.5 yards per game). Stave, meanwhile, had thrown just one touchdown over his past two games and didn’t have the receiving help he needed beyond Jared Abbrederis.
He still didn’t find much help outside of Abbrederis. However, the two connected 10 times for 207 yards to keep Wisconsin in the game in crucial moments. Abbrederis caught a 36-yard touchdown pass with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter to tie the game at 7. He later caught a 64-yard pass, weaving his way through Ohio State defenders down to the Buckeyes 13.
“I thought Jared played a great game,” Stave said. “I thought we did a good job up front protecting, giving me an opportunity to drive the ball down the field. That’s the player that Jared is. He runs great routes, he gets open and I have a lot of confidence throwing him the ball.”
Abbrederis became the first UW player to haul in at least 200 yards receiving in a single game since Lee Evans had a school-record 258 yards against Michigan State in 2003. The numbers did not do much to sway the mood of Abbrederis, who wasn’t happy about the loss.
“I’m all about the team,” Abbrederis said. “It’s not individual. It doesn’t really matter. If I would have had that many and won the game, that would have been great. There’s something that I left out there. Obviously, it wasn’t enough to win the game.”
Stave seemed to be at his best under pressure Saturday. He directed a six-play, 76-yard drive that culminated with an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Sam Arneson, which trimmed Wisconsin’s deficit to 17-14 in the first half.
Wisconsin flipped the script from its usually run-heavy offense. While Stave passed 34 times, the Badgers ran the ball on 27 occasions.
“I think we came out and I think we were trying to soften them up a little bit, get some people out of the box and get some passing threats,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “Keep the safeties a little higher and so we could get into our run. I thought it started well.”
Stave’s 295 yards passing were the most by a Badgers quarterback since Russell Wilson threw for 296 yards in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
“I think we did do a lot of good things offensively,” Stave said. “It was a tough environment. That was a good team we just played. And I thought we did a good job. Again, it’s a loss. We’ve got to make sure we can’t accept that. That’s not who we are. That’s not what we want to be. We’ve got to keep learning from it, keep getting better.”
Run game stuffed: Given that Ohio State jammed the box, Wisconsin’s rushing totals were sure to take a dive Saturday night — and they did.
Gordon finished the game with 15 carries for 74 yards (4.9 yards per carry), while White carried eight times for 31 yards (3.9 yards per rush). Gordon dropped from first nationally in yards per game to eighth (139.6 yards). His season yards-per-carry average also fell from 11.8 to 10.3.
“It was pretty tough,” White said. “We knew it was going to be a dogfight, they were going to put eight guys in the box and we would have to work for each yard that we got. We started off slow, but I thought we got better throughout the game. We have to start off fast and continue that through.”
Gordon left the game in the second half with a knee injury, though Andersen said he thought the running back would be OK moving forward.
White scored the Badgers’ only rushing touchdown on a 17-yard score that cut Wisconsin’s deficit to 31-21.
“We started hitting them in the backfield a little bit,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “We contained them. For one thing, the longest run from scrimmage looked like it was 17 yards. And that’s not like them.”
Kicking woes: Badgers kicker Kyle French entered Saturday’s game having made three consecutive field goal attempts, but he missed a 32-yarder in the second quarter wide left. He responded well, however, by drilling a 42-yard try in the fourth quarter.
French said he twisted his hips and pulled the ball on his missed field goal attempt.
“The ball stayed straight along that hash,” he said. “I was happy to bounce back but obviously I wish I could have made that 30-yarder at the start.”
Though questions emerged earlier this season about French’s status as the starting kicker, he seems to have quieted such talk. On Saturday, Andrew Endicott traveled on the 70-man roster — not kicker Jack Russell, who had been French’s stiffest competition. Endicott handled the kickoffs, which is a role he is likely to fill the rest of the season. He isn’t likely to challenge French for playing time on field goals and point-after tries.
Injury updates: Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen wore a bulky black brace over his left knee during warmups, but he did not play in Saturday’s game. Center Dallas Lewallen (knee), cornerback T.J. Reynard (unknown) and receiver Kenzel Doe (hamstring) also did not play. Doe tweeted Saturday night that he had torn a hamstring muscle, though school officials have not confirmed the report.
Badgers wide receiver Jordan Fredrick left Saturday’s game with an apparent head injury and did not return.
Three players did return from injuries and saw at least some action: wide receiver Jeff Duckworth, defensive back Peniel Jean and linebacker Derek Landisch. Landisch finished with three tackles and Jean one. Duckworth caught one pass for eight yards.