Ohio State started the ride on a high with an eight-point lead with less than five minutes to play. Then suddenly the Buckeyes were on the brink of a Nebraska-like collapse. Of course, the ride wasn't over yet. After the Badgers provided a dip, OSU found another high and held on long enough to finish the trek with arguably the biggest win of the 2011 season.
"A game like that, there's no words to explain it," junior fullback Zach Boren said, echoing the thoughts of several of his teammates following the game.
Boren might have been at a loss for words, but the final five minutes deserves some discussion. This started well enough for the Buckeyes when freshman quarterback Braxton Miller gave Ohio State when seemed like a commanding 26-14 lead on a 44-yard touchdown run with 4:39 left in the fourth quarter.
Much like they did against Michigan State a week earlier, the Badgers did not give up, however. Wisconsin quickly drove down the field on the ensuing drive for a touchdown. UW needed only four plays to go 66 yards, ending the march with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jared Abbrederis. Philip Welch's extra point cut the OSU lead to 26-21 with 3:48 remaining.
Ohio State was held to a three-and-out on offense after the Abbrederis TD, and the Buckeyes only drained 1:06 off the clock. Following a Ben Buchanan punt, Wisconsin took over its own 32-yard line and again struck quickly. UW quarterback Russell Wilson completed all three of his pass attempts on the four-play, 68-yard drive, including a 49-yard touchdown pass to Abbrederis on a blown coverage by the Buckeye secondary. A two-point conversion pass from Wilson to running back Montee Ball gave Wisconsin a 29-26 lead with 1:18 remaining – and also gave OSU players, coaches and fans bad flashbacks to the Nebraska game, one in which the Buckeyes blow a second-half lead in an eventual loss.
The momentum turned in OSU's favor, however, on the ensuing kick. Junior tailback Jordan Hall, who had earlier lost a fumble on a third-quarter punt that led to a Wisconsin touchdown, had a good return and gave the Buckeyes starting field position at their 48-yard line with 1:10 remaining.
As the Buckeye offense started its final drive, junior cornerback Travis Howard remained confident that things would end well for he and his teammates.
"I knew our offense would step up," he said. "I kept telling everybody that I have faith in those guys. They were going to get the ball moving.
"The whole time on the sideline when they were on the field I was praying. I was just hoping they'd get in field goal range."
The offense exceeded Howard's hopes. The drive started with a 7-yard pitch and catch from Miller to Boren that put the ball on the UW 45. Following two rushes, a 2-yard gain by Miller and a 3-yard gain by fifth-year senior tailback Boom Herron, Miller made the biggest play of his young collegiate career.
The freshman from Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne took a shotgun snap at the UW 40, flushed to his right when pressured by Badger rushers and then heaved a pass downfield just before he crossed the line of scrimmage. The pass sailed through the air and into the waiting arms of fellow freshman Devin Smith, who had snuck in behind the Wisconsin secondary in the end zone. Badger cornerback Marcus Cromartie raced to Smith to try to knock the pass away, but he was too late. Smith caught the pass, sending Ohio Stadium crowd into a frenzy and giving the Buckeyes the lead with only 20 seconds left.
"I expected (Miller) to run because that's usually what he does," Smith said of the touchdown play. "I saw him look directly at me and then I saw him launch the ball. It was up there forever, and I was waiting for it to fall down. They all said it looked like a punt. I just wanted to make a play."
The drama was not over, however. The OSU kickoff following Smith's go-ahead score went out of bounds, giving Wisconsin starting field position at its own 40. A face mask penalty on what would have been the final play of the game allowed the Badgers to take on final shot down the field from the OSU 45 on an untimed down with no time left on the clock. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, senior linebacker Andrew Sweat ended the roller-coaster ride on a high note by deflecting Wilson's last pass attempt.
"My job was to spy the running back. I just saw a seam and rushed (the quarterback)," Sweat said. "Fortunately I got a hand on the ball."
The final incompletion set off a major celebration on the field. Students and other Buckeye fans rushed the field and mobbed the players, several of whom called the win the most dramatic of their football careers.
"I've been through a lot of close games, but I haven't been through a game like that before," said freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was on the field for the final UW drive. "That game out there was a big game. Everything goes through your head (in those last minutes).
"I knew we were going to make a play, through. I always believed."