COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller sprinted forward, avoided the collapsing pocket around him and zipped a pass that glided through the crisp late-September air. Seconds remained on the first-half clock.
Miller had spotted wide receiver Corey Brown streaking down the left side of the field, quickly distancing himself from two Badgers defenders. Brown slipped behind the secondary on a post route just in time to corral Miller’s 40-yard toss, tucking the ball in as he landed on his right hip inside the end zone.
Red flares crackled above the Ohio Stadium scoreboard, and a feverish crowd of 105,826 — the third largest in school history — exploded with delight. In the short burst of one fourth-down play, Ohio State had established a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead with just one second left in the half.
It didn’t officially signify the end during No. 4 Ohio State’s eventual 31-24 victory on Saturday night against No. 23 Wisconsin. But in a game in which the Badgers already needed every ounce of help to survive, they had committed an inexcusable mistake that all but deflated dreams of a fourth straight Big Ten championship.
“It’s basically a play that should absolutely never happen,” said Badgers safety Dezmen Southward, who was beaten along with cornerback Peniel Jean.
The play typified a night full of miscues for Wisconsin, which will now likely spend the rest of the season in catch-up mode behind Ohio State.
Wisconsin players reiterated all week Saturday’s game wouldn’t count any more than others in the Big Ten standings, and they were technically right. But outside the locker room, as the deafening fan noise vanished through the stadium gates, it felt like so much more.
Ohio State is the best team in the Big Ten, winners of 17 consecutive games over two seasons under coach Urban Meyer. And now the Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) hold an early one-game lead in the Leaders Division standings with no end to the winning streak in sight. For Wisconsin, it’s more akin to a two-game lead because Ohio State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“They’re in position if they obviously run the table to go this year,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “Something’s got to happen. We don’t completely control our own destiny. If we take care of business one game at a time, I like our chances.
“There will be another big game for us to play to put ourselves in a position to do some special things with this season. What those are, I don’t know, but these kids will come back. They’ll be ready to roll.”
What made the moment even more difficult for Wisconsin (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday were the numerous opportunities that slipped away.
Badgers linebacker Conor O’Neill was flagged for a facemask on a play in which Miller fumbled, though replays showed he grabbed the back of his helmet instead. Kicker Kyle French missed a 32-yard field goal. Left tackle Tyler Marz drew a holding penalty that wiped out a first-down pass play. Later in the drive, Wisconsin recovered an Ohio State muffed punt, only to have it brought back because the Badgers were called for an illegal formation.
And with seconds remaining in the first half, cornerback Sojourn Shelton dropped a sure interception off a poor pass from Miller. One play later, Miller connected with Brown for the backbreaking touchdown — an eerily similar sight for Wisconsin, which saw Miller toss a 40-yard touchdown in the final minute to beat the Badgers, 33-29, two years ago in Columbus.
Jean said Wisconsin was playing a cover-3 zone defense on the play Saturday, and when Brown left his area, he thought he had help over the top from Southward. Instead, Brown found open space for the score.
“At the end of the day, we gave them too many layups, didn’t make them shoot enough jump shots and 3-pointers,” Andersen said. “We can’t do it. They took advantage of it.”
Ohio State scored its first touchdown less than three minutes in the game, and Wisconsin never led. The Badgers trailed by as much as 31-14 with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter but trimmed the deficit on running back James White’s 17-yard touchdown and a 42-yard field goal from French.
“We had opportunities in the beginning of the game and we started off kind of slow,” White said. “We’ve got to fix those mistakes. When you play a good team, you can’t start off slow. They started fast. You put yourself in a dogfight.”
Despite all the mistakes, Wisconsin somehow found itself with an outside shot to force overtime. Quarterback Joel Stave brought the offense on the field at his own 10-yard line with 1:29 remaining in the game and the Badgers trailing by seven. But the drive went nowhere, and his final pass to receiver Jeff Duckworth fell incomplete with 20 seconds remaining.
Unlike last season, when Ohio State was ineligible for postseason play, Wisconsin will be hard pressed to earn a second chance, though players aren’t willing to admit as much just yet.
“We can’t look at what’s going on outside of us,” Southward said. “We have to really hone in on what we have going on, who we’re going to play, and that’s the only way we’ll get back to where we want to go.”
Given the way the Buckeyes are playing, it seems an awfully long way to go for the Badgers.