Maybe Michael Bennett was right all along.
The Ohio State defensive lineman insisted after the Buckeyes gave up over 200 yards in consecutive games to Minnesota and Indiana earlier this month that Ohio State's run defense was fine overall. The problem was just mistakes that led to big plays. A 121-yard rushing day for Michigan last week did not do much to help his case, especially considering the Wolverines did not really get stopped running the ball until their most effective tailback was lost to a knee injury in the second half.
Whatever the narrative was or should have been heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, there was no doubt the Buckeyes would face a major challenge in Melvin Gordon, the nation's leading rusher. Sure, they held him in check during a win in Columbus last season when he ran for only 74 yards, but this time looked different. Gordon has been better, both by the numbers and the eye test, while running behind a veteran offensive line this season. He entered the title game with 2,260 yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping 8.0 yards per carry.
The Badgers' star ended up exceeding his rushing total of last season, but by only two yards. He also needed 11 more carries to get this 76 net yards, and he failed to find the end zone for the first time since an abbreviated outing against Western Illinois in the second week of the season. While Gordon entered the night leading the nation with 31 runs of at least 20 yards, he had none against the Buckeyes -- the first time this season he failed to turn in an explosive play.
"I don't think they brought anything surprising," Gordon said. "When it came down to it, we just wasn't playing Wisconsin football. Just one of those days, but we just got to regroup, get back together, get ready for this bowl game."
Gordon's longest carry was a 13-yarder in the first quarter. He also had a 10-yarder on the same drive, a promising march that was cut short by Vonn Bell's interception at the Ohio State 42-yard line.
How did the Buckeyes stop Gordon? Well, they often loaded the box with an extra defender, but much of the night that didn't seem to matter as the defensive line overpowered a talented, veteran Wisconsin front that lost its center, Dan Voltz, to an ankle injury early in the game.
"They have had a really high-powered offense all season," Bennett said. "Great O-line. Melvin Gordon is the real deal. He made a lot of plays that there was nowhere to make a play. I got a lot of respect for that offense. I think we came out with a lot of intensity, a lot of drive."
Bennett was the biggest Buckeye as he made five tackles, including four for loss. Fellow tackle Adolphus Washington had four tackles, including two for loss, an standout end Joey Bosa also added four stops. That trio showed why they were all highly coveted recruits while unheralded Rashad Frazier made his first start of the season and contributed a tackle for loss. Redshirt freshmen Tyquan Lewis and Donovon Munger also held their own in spot duty, as did senior end Steve Miler.
Linebacker Darron Lee shared the team lead with safety Vonn Bell with seven tackles apiece, and Bennett called the game the first time all three units of the defense were firing at the same time.
"We usually had the D-line do well, then linebackers don't do well.," Bennett said. "Then linebackers and DBs do well, then D-line doesn't have a great game. This is the first time everybody did everything that was asked of them and did it as hard as they possibly could. This is a huge victory for us. A lot of respect for the offense we won against."
Ohio State allowed only 258 total yards, the fewest by a ranked opponent since Penn State managed only 201 against the Buckeyes in late 2009. They posted their second shutout of the season and first of a Big Ten team since last year at Purdue.
"Best effort we had since we've been here," Meyer said. "I think Mike said it best: There's always been games where the D-line played well, maybe the back end was giving up some plays. This was a complete, thorough effort by our defense. Coach Fickell, Coach Ash -- everybody was waiting for the 'Silver Bullets' to come back, including the head coach. That was a fantastic effort."
Follow on Twitter @marcushartman