MADISON, Wis. — NCAA sanctions indicate Ohio State’s victory technically means nothing. A possible undefeated season and a guaranteed Big Ten Leaders Division championship are nice things for players to tell their grandkids about someday. But without a postseason berth, what does it really signify?
On Saturday, it sure felt like an awful lot.
Ohio State edged Wisconsin, 21-14, in overtime at Camp Randall Stadium to clinch the outright Leaders Division championship. The Buckeyes aren’t eligible to play for the Big Ten title in Indianapolis two weeks from now, but a piece of hardware will fill the team’s trophy case for its divisional title.
Buckeyes players understand they face circumstances far beyond their control, and they have found peace with their place. But the opportunity to enjoy the spoils of victory is not lost on them. They are playing for pride — and doing so with plenty of firepower.
“It’s just that gladiator mentality,” Buckeyes cornerback Bradley Roby said. “You go into someone else’s home, in front of their fans, their moms, their girlfriends. … What’s better than that? Going into somebody else’s house and taking everything they have.”
With the victory, Ohio State moved to 11-0 and 7-0 in Big Ten play. In any other year, the Buckeyes would be in the national championship conversation. Instead, they’ll settle for division champions and miss out on the bowl season. Had it won, Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) could have climbed within one game of Ohio State with one more remaining.
Who would have thought such a turnaround would take place at Ohio State this quickly, even with a coach as talented and driven as Urban Meyer? Last season under interim coach Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes finished 6-7 to complete their first non-winning season since 1999.
Then, less than a month after Meyer was hired in November, the NCAA hit Ohio State with a one-year postseason ban, vacated its wins from the 2010 season, handed out scholarship reductions and three years of probation. It was punishment for five players receiving improper benefits from a tattoo parlor the previous year, violations that took place under former coach Jim Tressel and led to his eventual resignation.
Meyer implemented an up-tempo system and changed the culture within the program. Players became tougher in the weight room and more disciplined about their health. The byproduct of those changes showed Saturday, when Ohio State recovered after surrendering a game-tying touchdown with eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes needed four plays to score the deciding touchdown in overtime. Standout quarterback Braxton Miller rushed twice for 12 yards, and running back Carlos Hyde finished the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Ohio State stymied Wisconsin’s overtime drive, and when Buckeyes safety Christian Bryant knocked away the final fourth-down pass, OSU players ran jubilantly across the field.
“That’s leadership on our team,” said Meyer, whose career head coaching record is now 115-23. “Our coaches did a good job getting the guys going because we were sucking our thumbs after they scored with eight seconds left. It’s over. No timeouts. The game is over. But I liked the way the offense just went in and attacked it.”
Regardless of the postseason ban, there is plenty of hope for the future at Ohio State. Miller is a sophomore and Hyde a junior. The team’s top two receivers and top five tacklers also have at least one year of eligibility remaining. And there is every reason to believe next season could be special in Year 2 of the Meyer regime.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, finds itself in the unusual situation of representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship despite not finishing in first place. In fact, the Badgers stand in third place. Penn State, which crushed Indiana, 45-22, is one game ahead of Wisconsin but also ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions. The two squads will meet next week in Happy Valley to decide the second-place team.
“We wanted to win out because we don’t want people now to say we’re making it to Indianapolis by default,” said Badgers running back Montee Ball, who tied the all-time NCAA FBS touchdown record of 78 on Saturday. “It’s not a good feeling right now, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Other Wisconsin players acknowledged that if they’re able to win the Big Ten championship game against either Nebraska or Michigan, most people won’t remember they weren’t supposed to play in the game. For now, making that distinction is tough.
“We want to say that we earned our way there,” Wisconsin safety Dezmen Southward said. “But we understand the circumstances that led us to get there.”
Sure, in some ways, Saturday’s victory means nothing for Ohio State. In other ways, however, it appears to be the start of something much bigger.