MADISON – A sellout crowd nearing piercing decibels acted as if a wet blanket was thrown on top of it.
After years of uninspiring home schedules, Wisconsin’s conference home opener was turning into an instant classic with fourth-quarter lead changes between two heavyweights, drama that only intensified with the stadium’s first overtime game in four seasons.
But a familiar script played out for the second straight game for the Badgers – missed opportunities rearing its ugly head to prevent them from slaying another top-10 giant.
“It hurts,” tight end Troy Fumagalli said following No.8 Wisconsin’s 30-23 defeat to No.2 Ohio State Saturday night. “It definitely does, especially because I think we left some things out there in the first half and the second half.”
In the first conference night game at Camp Randall since 2011, No.2 Ohio State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) made it five straight over the Badgers (4-2, 1-2) by simply being able to deliver in the clutch.
Ohio State junior quarterback J.T. Barrett was a big part of that. He ran for two touchdowns in the third quarter to erase a 16-6 Wisconsin lead and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Noah Brown in overtime to tighten the screws on Wisconsin’s sporadic offense.
“This is what we train for, places like this,” Barrett said after throwing for 226 yards and leading Ohio State with 92 rushing yards. “Great team in Wisconsin. Training all winter workouts, spring ball, summer workouts … This is when it shows. We knew we had to keep on grinding.”
Long before the game’s final play, a jovial home crowd appeared antsy.
While Wisconsin had accumulated 313 yards and rushed for 170 yards against a defense giving up only 244.6 total yards and 96 rushing on the season, the Badgers had settled for three field goals on three of four trips inside the Ohio State 25 in the first half.
The two most egregious misses came inside the Ohio State 10-yard line: having a 9-yard touchdown waved off due to a holding call and couldn’t counter back, and seeing its two-minute drill sputter out after getting first-and-goal at the Ohio State 5.
Wisconsin was running the ball effectively – running for 236 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per game. When that vanished in the third quarter, the Badgers were held to only 11 yards on 11 plays.
“We didn’t have anything going,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “The thing that gave us a chance offensively was running the football. We were able to do that in everything but the third quarter. That’s why you don’t get the plays.
Usually it wouldn’t have mattered with Wisconsin’s defense playing its sound brand of football. The Badgers limited Ohio State to only 172 yards and stymied its run and pass game in the red zone in the first half. And when a surprise downpour rained down on the stadium just as the Buckeyes advanced to the UW 13-yard line, causing Barrett to overthrow an open receiver and safety D’Cota Dixon to make the interception, fate appeared to be on UW’s side.
Twice on the next two possessions Wisconsin’s defense had the chance to get off the field on third down and force a field goal attempt. Twice a UW linebacker missed sacks that proved costly.
Facing a third-and-10 on the UW 23, short field after an Alex Hornibrook interception, linebacker T.J. Watt couldn’t knock down Barrett, who threw a 9-yard completion to Brown. Ohio State converted the fourth-and-short and were in the end two players later for its first touchdown.
“It’s terrible, especially when I know it was me,” Watt said. “I was back there so many times, especially on third and long, had him in my grasp completely and that leads to a touchdown. Certain plays like that, where you know it’s on you, it sucks and I take full responsibility.”
One drive later, inside linebacker Jack Cichy rushed the line of scrimmage outside the right tackle. He whiffed on his clear lane to Barrett, who then rolled to his right and jogged into the end zone with the field wide open after Cichy vacated the area.
“You play it over and over and over in your head,” Chryst said. “Whether it’s T.J. or Cichy. At the same time you say, hats off, he’s a heck of a player. I thought he was everything that we thought coming in.”
Make no mistake that Wisconsin made plenty of big plays, too. Jazz Peavy’s 39-yard catch on third-and-9 was the key play in an 11-play, 89-yard drive to put the Badgers back in front 23-20 with 7:54 remaining. Senior Leo Musso made a solo tackle on Barrett at the UW 14 that could have gone for a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Problem was there weren’t enough of those critical plays made in crunch time, something Ohio State delivered on.
The Buckeyes were out gained 450 to 411 but stood tall after Wisconsin advanced to a first-and-goal on the four in overtime. Despite tying his career high of 164 yards, Corey Clement was stuffed on two run plays and Hornibrook throw out of the back of the end zone on second down was the result of blanked pressure.
Needing four yards to keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive, the Buckeyes’ fourth-down rush collapsed the entire right side of UW’s offensive line on fourth down. Unable to get a throw off, Hornibrook took a sack and that was that.
“When it comes down to overtime we get another four tries to punch it into the end zone,” Clement said. “Ohio State has a great defense. They were calling out a lot of things but we just had to persevere and execute … You either beat the heavyweight champion or you don’t, but you still get back up and learn to fight next week.”