Ohio State broke a scoreless tie in the first quarter when Corey Brown's 68-yard punt return for a touchdown; a score that went a long way in the Buckeyes' 21-14 overtime victory over Wisconsin Saturday at Camp Randall.
This trend started with a Ray Small 96-yard kick return for a touchdown in Columbus in 2009. The Buckeyes won 31-13 even though Wisconsin doubled Ohio State in total yards, 368-184. In 2010, David Gilreath returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, and Wisconsin went on to win, 31-18.
But throw in last year's punt block that gave Ohio State the ball inside the Wisconsin 5, the Buckeyes' punt return unit has been the better group.
"Our philosophy is we've got to get a guy to stop his feet," said fullback Derek Watt, who is on all four special teams units. "We've got to stop the returner's feet so he doesn't move forward. We didn't have anybody stop his feet … We learned that lesson today."
This time Wisconsin used the run game to control the clock, holding the ball for over 37 minutes and outgained Ohio State, 360-236. However, there were many drives that the Badgers couldn't finish with points because of missed opportunities.
"You've got to make more plays. I've always got to make more plays," said junior tight end Jacob Pedersen who had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.
"Up until that final tick, it comes down to us guys making plays. If it's running backs, tight ends, receivers, [the] offensive line blocking, no matter what it is, you have to do it with your best. You can't take a play off."
With 1:58 left on the clock in the first quarter, freshman punter Drew Meyer kicked a line drive punt into the wind that outkicked the coverage team. Brown took advantage – making the initial wave of Badgers' miss, burst up the middle of the field and fooled Meyer on his tackle attempt. Brown was gone, and Wisconsin played catch up the rest of the night.
"Pretty much every big game, and every game in general, special teams are huge in statistics between blocks and returns for touchdowns are huge and so it one of those where we're trying to operate crisp and clean and just execute," Meyer said. "I feel bad because I've got to give that more hang-time so it falls on my shoulders."
Meyer finished with eight punts totaling 317 yards, but the wind seemed to be messing with some of his kicks. Bielema decided against a field goal when the Badgers had the ball at the Ohio State 30-yard line because of the wind, even though sophomore kicker Kyle French said he made one from 53 during warm-ups.
"[The wind] does, but at the same time you've just got to fight through that, [and] keep swinging up and through," said Meyer. "With the drop you know stay a little low and got a little too far down field with it and drove it too much."
That punt return was a crucial play for the Buckeyes because the Badgers defense was finding ways to shut down one of the most potent run/pass threats in quarterback Braxton Miller.
"That's tough but that's one of those things where you know one facet of the team has to pick up another," said senior safety Dezmen Southward, as Wisconsin limited Miller to 97 passing yards and 48 rushing yards in the game.
"We didn't execute well. We had a lot of defenders on the field for the punt so we don't get down on any one unit. If the defense is giving up a ton of points god forbid the offense will have to step up and score some more."
The special teams struggles continued when French pulled a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would've cut the Buckeyes lead to 14-10.
"Drew [Meyer] said he felt like it was a fine hold," said French who is now two of four on field goals of 40-49 yards this season.
"I could've been a little quick to the spot because of how that ball had that funny kind of spin to it. I felt very confident going out there and obviously I'm very disappointed I couldn't have a different kind of result, especially for the seniors. It's always a bad feeling when you feel like in a way you let your team down."
Added Bielema: "One of the things I've heard throughout the year this year: It's not what's in front of us, it's not what's behind us, it's what's within us. For whatever reason we're having to learn some lessons that are really difficult to swallow but it will make us better."