INDIANAPOLIS - A secondary that returned three players, including both starting cornerback, had given up only 10 passing touchdowns through 12 games in Wisconsin’s run to a Big Ten West Division championship.
Those numbers seem like a memory now, especially after No.6 Ohio State frequently exposed virtually every defensive back on the field in a 59-0 manhandling in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“We failed to execute,” said safety Michael Caputo said. “Ohio State, the really good team they are, they did execute. That’s all.”
It seemed unreasonable to think a sophomore quarterback with just 19 career passes coming into the game could dissect Wisconsin’s secondary with surgeon-like precision, but it’s also rare that a team’s third-string quarterback could also be the third-best quarterback in the Big Ten.
Filling in for J.T. Barrett, who was lost for the season against Michigan last week, Cardale Jones didn’t miss a beat exposing the Badgers secondary for 257 yards and three touchdowns in the game (211 yards and two scores at halftime).
“We struggled on the deep ball, and I think the deep ball opened up so many other things,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “If you see the deep ball, you start playing to the deep ball. That’s when they start getting passes underneath. They had a very good plan. Whatever their plan was for the secondary, credit to those guys, they had a good plan.”
Whatever that plan was worked to perfection. Jones set a Big Ten Championship Game record with a 255.8 QB Rating while completing 12-for-17 of his passes that included gains of 21, 23, 32, 42 and 44 yards.<
It was a similar story as last season’s matchup in Columbus. The Badgers’ secondary got torched with Braxton Miller throwing for 198 yards and four touchdowns, putting Wisconsin in too deep of a whole to come back from, with Corey Brown and Devin Smith beating UW’s coverage that day in a 31-24 victory.
Smith was back at it again for the Buckeyes, who finished with four catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns.
On Ohio State’s first drive, the Buckeyes moved down the field with ease and capped the 77-yard drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Smith, who beat Shelton on the fly route. It turned out to be the game-winner.
“He’s a great player,” Shelton said. “And people have to understand, there’s a lot of good players around college. Hats off to him, he made some really big plays at big times. He’s a really big reason for the momentum swing. He kept making play after play. Hats off to him, that’s all I can say.”
“They don’t really have that much to their scheme,” Jean said. “All they do is just rely a lot on the deep ball. They have great receivers that can go up and get the ball and we had trouble locating the football and that’s where they took advantage.”
The secondary struggles weren’t limited to the pass, as big hits in the Ohio State running game were caused by missed tackles or misaligned players. Tailback Ezekiel Elliot gashed the defense on his way through the secondary for 150 of his 220 yards – a Big Ten championship game record 0 and both his touchdowns in the first half.
On OSU’s third drive, Jean followed a Buckeye in motion, and after someone missed an assignment, Elliot found a gaping running lane for an 81-yard touchdown.
“I was just manned up on the tight end and I followed my man and all of a sudden someone lost their gap and he just went for a long run,” said Jean. “Someone just lost their gap.”
Jones ran the same read-option plays that Barrett would have, but he used the play-action to evade the pass rush and didn’t run as much. Then again, he didn’t have to with the number of receivers he had open downfield. Jones finished with eight carries for nine yards.
Because UW had to compensate for Elliot and keep the deep balls in mind, the Badgers were susceptible for underneath throws, which Jones hit multiple times.
In the end, it didn’t matter much what the Badgers secondary did; it was too late to fix anything tangible trailing 38-0 at halftime.
“It’s a big learning experience for us as a team,” said Shelton. “Even if we were in man coverage and they call a perfect play-action play, we’ve got to try to find ways to make those plays. And they may be hard plays, and they may be against really good players, but you’ve just got to try to find a way to make them.”