MADISON, Wis. — It was clear that Ohio State would not have an easy night when its head coach meandered too close to a sideline official, who promptly whacked him in the head while signaling for the clock to wind. And for this, Urban Meyer got tagged with a 15-yard sideline interference penalty, a slap in the face after the slap in the face.
And it was clear that Wisconsin was juiced to the gills for this showdown, perhaps best reflected by a Camp Randall Stadium press box that was swaying with fans dancing … in the second quarter, well before the usual pre-fourth quarter “Jump Around” revelry.
It was only fitting that the best game in the Big Ten this year involved more football than expected, with two top 10 teams requiring overtime to settle the thing. And the second-ranked Buckeyes escaped with a 30–23 win thanks to J.T. Barrett’s overtime touchdown pass and a fourth-and-goal stand from the Ohio State defense.
Here are three thoughts on the proceedings at Camp Randall:
1. Ohio State still has unmuddied playoff aspirations because it has J.T. Barrett, who may be part sorcerer
The final stat line was solid but won’t be mind-boggling to anyone: 17-of-29 passing, 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception, with 92 rushing yards and two touchdowns added to that. But then there really isn’t a box score category for escape artistry. The Buckeyes’ junior quarterback was the catalyst for a critical second-half offensive resurgence because he made something out of nothing on multiple occasions. Wriggling away from the Badgers’ T.J. Watt, who had a handful of jersey, for a 35-yard first-half completion to set up a field goal was just a preview.
On Ohio State’s second drive of the second half, deep in Wisconsin territory, Barrett tore away from a sack on a third-and-10 for a nine-yard completion. That kept things moving and allowed for a fourth-down conversion that preceded Barrett’s own one-yard touchdown dive. On the next Buckeyes possession, Barrett’s 21-yard laser on third-and-5 preceded another magic act for a score: He deftly sidestepped incoming Badgers linebacker Jack Cichy, who had a clean shot in the backfield, and then dashed in for an eight-yard touchdown, the go-ahead score.
After Wisconsin recaptured the lead with about eight minutes left, Barrett rescued a drive in neutral with a 43-yard completion on second-and-11. The result was a game-tying field goal with 3:57 left. And then came overtime, which was more about Barrett’s resolve than his magic. Two penalties could have stymied Ohio State on the opening series, but Barrett didn’t flinch, floating a touchdown pass to Noah Brown for the winning score.
“The absolute test of a leader is to raise the play of those around you,” Meyer said of Barrett. “And he’s surrounded by a bunch of guys who were newbies this year. We have a true freshman playing left guard and it’s a quarterback’s responsibility to pick up his level of play. Same with a bunch of new receivers. That’s what makes J.T. so special.”
The Buckeyes, with especially notable games to come against Nebraska and Michigan, are obviously guaranteed nothing vis a vis a College Football Playoff berth. But as long as that record stays unblemished, they’re effectively in control of their own fate. That remained the case late Saturday night, thanks to some prestidigitation from their starting quarterback.
2. Wisconsin may be the most playoff-caliber team that isn’t a playoff team
With two losses, it’s difficult to see a path to the playoff for the Badgers, even if they win out all the way through the Big Ten championship game. But it’s impossible to write off that scenario. This defense is beyond for real; after limiting Michigan to 14 points in a loss, Wisconsin did well to stanch an Ohio State offense that came in averaging—averaging—53.2 points and 537.6 yards per game. The Buckeyes finished with 411 yards on the night, nearly all of them hard-earned. It is a championship-level defense. Of that there is no doubt at this point.
And the offense came around. Yes, quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s interception led to Ohio State’s go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter. But the Badgers snagged the lead back on the ensuing drive, an 11-play, 81-yard masterpiece of clever football and power football. Wisconsin got a season-best 164 rushing yards from Corey Clement and 247 yards on the ground overall, good for its second-best total of the season against a defense that ranked ninth nationally against the run coming in, allowing about 98 rushing yards per game. And if Hornibrook gets a pass off on fourth-and-goal in overtime, well, who knows…
“What this group wants to be is the best team it can be,” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said, responding to a question about how close his team is to being an “elite” program. “I’m proud certainly of the program and everything. This is our window. This is this year’s team’s window. The objective is to be the best we can be. The bar is set high here. I think there’s still room for growth. I love a lot of the things that we’ve done, but there’s still room for growth. We got to take those steps.”
At any rate, if the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan showdown is unbeaten heading into the league title game in Indianapolis, you wonder if the Big Ten wants to see Wisconsin on the other side. The Badgers might be a playoff team disguised as a spoiler at that point, but spoil things they surely could.
3. Urban Meyer’s curious call does not backfire
The scenario: ball on the OSU 15-yard line, 41 seconds on the clock, two timeouts, tie game on the road, Barrett is your quarterback. Under these conditions, Ohio State’s head coach elected to run one play and watch the clock bleed into overtime. Surely a good deal could have gone wrong, but the odds were against it with a veteran Heisman Trophy candidate handling the ball. Barrett did have a fumble earlier (he recovered it) and an interception thrown during a sudden rain downpour. But those didn’t seem like mistakes that should preclude at least some sort of shot at a big-gainer on first down, to see if the field opened up.
In a toss-up game, on the road, it didn’t seem like the Buckeyes had that massive an advantage in any department going into the extra period. And surely the false start penalty and holding flag on their possession to open overtime frayed some nerves. But Barrett and the Buckeyes defense made Meyer right in the end, and though the conservative call was curious, all that matters in Columbus is that their coach was ultimately right.
“This is what we train for,” Barrett said. “Places like this, a great team in Wisconsin. We’re training all winter workouts, spring ball, summer workouts, understanding all the hard stuff coach puts us through—which at the time we didn’t like him for—this is when it comes up, this is when it shows. We just have to keep on grinding.”