The Badgers have learned how to overcome late-game adversity, a devastating flu bug and a hostile road environment, turning potentially dangerous scenarios into character-building wins. Now for the first time, UW will have to learn how to bounce back from a crippling loss, a game the Badgers will look back and say they should have won.
Looking to make a statement on the road against the first ranked team appearing on its schedule, Wisconsin instead allowed Ohio State to score a combined three touchdowns on defense and special teams, scores that provided the undoing of UW in a 31-13 defeat Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
Coming into the contest, Wisconsin (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten) knew that success could be achieved if the Badgers handled Ohio State sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Save an 88-yard scoring drive at the end of the second half, the Badgers accomplished their goal of keeping the Ohio State offense off the field and limiting Pryor, who accounted for only 123 yards of total offense and one score.
Wisconsin out gained Ohio State (5-1, 3-0) in total yards (368 to 184), ran 49 more offensive plays and dominated the time of possession 42 minutes, 47 seconds to 17:13. Surely that would provide the ultimate upset recipe for the Badgers?
Maybe so, but what the Badgers didn't count on was quarterback Scott Tolzien, the conference leader in pass efficiency, throwing two costly interceptions that turned into 14 Ohio State points in a matter of seconds.
After driving to the OSU 31-yard line, Tolzien overthrew his intended target and was picked off by safety Kurt Coleman, who tipped toed 89 yards along the sidelines for the touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead.
Two quarters later, Tolzien was the victim of an athletic play by free safety Jermale Hines, who tipped the pass up in the air and into his arms. With a convoy in front of him, Hines returned the play 32 yards for the touchdown, putting Ohio State up 21-10.
"Both were poor decisions on my part," Tolzien admitted. "That's frustrating. We were moving the ball and the thing I can learn from is turnovers. That kills drives and puts momentum on their side.
"They were talented, but the thing I have to worry about is making better decisions."
To a degree, the offense was able to absorb the punch in the gut. After the first score, junior linebacker Culmer St. Jean picking off Pryor and returning it 13 yards down to the OSU 12, setting up a successful gamble by UW.
Lining up for a 26-yard field goal, Chris Maragos, the holder, took the direct snap and sprinted around the left corner, nicking the pylon with his out stretched right hand for the touchdown, tying the score at seven.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, who led the Big Ten with plus-one turnover margin, it would be the only turnover they forced.
"We didn't get the turnovers today, which we have been getting," UW coach Bret Bielema said. "We've got to be able to get a few scores without sending our offense out there."
After the second interception return, Tolzien quickly shook off the flub, hitting a wide-open Nick Toon along the UW sideline for a 33-yards gain, UW's longest play of the day, getting the Badgers back in OSU territory, eventually setting up at Phil Welch 46-yard field goal.
But whatever momentum UW had after cutting the lead to 21-13 quickly evaporated on the following kickoff, as the Badgers' spotty special teams allowed the return man Ray Small to take the kick right down the middle of the field, going untouched on a 96-yard return, giving Ohio State a 28-13 advantage.
"Anytime you give Ohio State 21 points at Columbus without having your defense being on the field, you don't have a very good chance of winning the football game," Bielema said bluntly.
Try as they might, Wisconsin's offense never put up any semblance of a fight against the Buckeyes top-ranked defense. After allowing only two sacks in the Badgers' first five games (tied for second best in the country), the Ohio State front seven got to Tolzien six times for a loss of 39 yards, blanketing the UW receiving corps and putting immense pressure on UW's offensive line.
"We didn't win the one-on-one battles," junior guard John Moffitt said. "You need to be sound in your protection, sound in your technique and, myself personally, I was not sound at all."
The Badgers also struggled on third downs and in the red zone, two big areas of success through the first half of the season. Converting 56.3 percent (36-of-64) of its third-down chances, best in the Big Ten and third in the country, Wisconsin was held to only 6 of 19 on the critical down. In the red zone, where the Badgers had converted 18 of their 22 attempts into touchdowns, UW was held at a measly 1-for-3.
Throw in the fact that UW was held to 118 yards rushing and were penalized seven times for 60 yards, the frustration factor increased exponentially.
"We couldn't stay into a rhythm," said sophomore running back John Clay, who was held to 59 yards on 20 carries. "We kept getting penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot. Like coach said, you have to play one opponent and we have to play against two teams today – Ohio State and Wisconsin."
The Badgers can hang their hat on, statistically, their best defensive performance of the year, limiting Ohio State to only 97 rushing yards and 87 passing yards. But with a chance to make a statement in the conference, the Badgers find themselves needing to wipe the slate clean quickly.
"Our defense played great but at the end of the day when the score is 31-13, you can't be happy at all," sophomore tackle J.J. Watt said. "Coming off a loss like this, nobody can be happy, but we have to put it behind us because it's Iowa week. Iowa is not going to be an easy game. Our team is going to come together."