There is perhaps not a sport where prognostication feels more futile or random than college football. It’s just too hard to say how a young kid in his fifth start will react in the hostility of a Camp Randall Stadium. Of course once that athlete becomes a known commodity, he’s off to the NFL.
So instead we cling to the history and tradition of coaches and programs, the constants in a world of yearly roster turnover, as we try to anticipate what’s to come.
It’s why we assume Nick Saban will contend for a national title on a yearly basis, even if we can’t name three players on his team. It’s why we fear Penn State will give the Buckeyes a run for their money this weekend in the frenzy of a Happy Valley whiteout, even if an early 20-point spread says otherwise. Previous experiences guide our foresight.
With that in mind, the story of how Wisconsin ended Ohio State’s perfect season seemed to be written by halftime Saturday night. The offensive deficiencies that plagued the Buckeyes last season against Michigan State had resurfaced. J.T. Barrett was just 6-of-14 passing heading into the break, down by 10. In truth, the margin could have been wider.
And even after the Buckeyes clawed back in the second half, didn’t it feel like the they would eventually fall in familiar fashion? Ohio State never trailed Michigan State last year, but when the chips were on the line the defense could not stop the interior run, and the Spartans killed the final 4:07 of game clock to win on a field goal as time expired.
Wisconsin football. Tie game. Three minutes and fifty-seven seconds on the clock. It seemed as if the Badgers were destined to repeat history on its final drive of regulation Saturday night, after Ohio State struggled to defend the run for nearly four quarters.
Instead the Ohio State defensive line dug in, forced a punt, and sent the game to overtime.
Dating back to August, 2016 was dubbed as the season of The Edge. The coaches promised that there would come a time when their talented but young roster would face a choice; fold in a high-pressure, uncomfortable situation and be ordinary, or cross the imaginary line that separates the average from elite.
Halting the Badgers’ last drive was just one of a few key moments that the Buckeyes looked anything but ordinary in the face of season-altering adversity in last Saturday’s 30-23 overtime win over Wisconsin.
Take the first sequence of the second half, for example. After getting gashed for more than 300 yards in the first half, the Ohio State defense responded by forcing Wisconsin to punt on its opening drive after halftime. Barrett immediately drove the Buckeyes into the red zone, looking to quickly cut into the Badgers’ lead.
And then a brief monsoon rained down upon the field, as if the weather from last year’s Michigan State game had come back to haunt the Buckeyes too. Barrett threw a terrible interception in the downpour, returning momentum to the home side.
It must have been deflating for the defense to trot back onto the field. A Wisconsin score at this juncture would have likely put the game away, but even the possibility of a sustained drive spelled trouble for the Buckeyes. Against a program with the history and reputation of shortening games with grueling, grinding possessions, the defense could have easily folded. Instead, the Silver Bullets forced a quick 3-and-out. Barrett then redeemed himself with a clutch 13-play touchdown drive on the following possession.
Dontre Wilson could have given up on the program. The once prized recruit has had a tumultuous four-year campaign in Columbus. As a freshman in 2013 he played more than almost anyone in his recruiting class. As a senior he is one of just a handful of holdovers from that class not currently playing in the NFL.
Dropped passes, fumbles and foot injuries have underlined Wilson’s career to a point, and when he nearly gave the game away on a muffed punt in the third quarter, it would have been excusable for the staff to permanently place him on the bench. Instead, the team maintained faith in the speedster from Texas, and he responded with a 43-yard fourth quarter snag along the sideline, the defining moment of Ohio State’s game-tying drive.
In many ways, Ohio State had to score a touchdown on its opening drive of overtime. Settle for a field goal, and Wisconsin wins the game with a touchdown in the following frame. Had the game reached a second overtime, Barrett would have been tasked with leading the offense straight into the teeth of Wisconsin’s raucous student section.
Twice in extra time penalties forced Ohio State to play from behind the sticks, and on both occasions the Buckeyes responded immediately with chunk plays to return the drive to a convertible distance. Then, on a pivotal 3rd-and-2, Meyer finally broke tendency, forgoing the quarterback run for a beautifully executed play-action fade.
Wisconsin appeared primed to respond with a touchdown of its own, moving the ball to the Ohio State four yard-line in two plays. The defense held firm from there, not giving an inch on first, second or third down, before putting the game away with a walk-off sack.
In a game that at its worse resembled the most painful loss of the Meyer era, it was appropriate that Ohio State’s biggest win of this season ended in identical fashion to the 2014 victory over Penn State, which helped jump-start the Buckeyes’ championship run two seasons ago.
In that game Ohio State overcame bouts of poor offense, an ill-timed interception, and the frantic Penn State crowd to eek past the Nittany Lions in double overtime. The game culminated with a Joey Bosa sack on the last play of the game. Tyquan Lewis was credited with the game-ending sack Saturday night, but Joey’s little brother Nick wasn’t far behind.
During yesterday’s press conference, a reporter commented that the Buckeyes were outplayed, and perhaps fortunate overcome Wisconsin. Meyer didn’t deflect. If anything, he was happy with how things played out.
“That’s going to happen, and I’m kind of glad it did,” he said. “Not every fight is going to be tilted one way.
“We did get out-played. I wouldn’t say we got out-toughed. They didn’t out four-to-six us, or out-effort us. I’d much rather have it that way in that kind of game for the development of the team.”
The 2014 mid-season gut check against Penn State taught a young team how to win in the face of adversity, keeping the chase for a national championship alive. Wisconsin similarly pushed Ohio State to the edge, and the Buckeyes responded.