INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State got its ring on Saturday. Now, will it get the call on Sunday?
The Buckeyes (11-2) won their second conference championship under head coach Urban Meyer, who this week refused to talk about what might lie on the other side of a Big Ten title game. Now that they’ve won it, an uneasy 12 hours lies ahead as Columbus (and Tuscaloosa) look on to see if a 27-21 beating of previously unbeaten No. 4 Wisconsin is enough to trade places with the Badgers in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Wisconsin’s defense had been a veritable brick wall this year, carrying the Badgers to a 12-0 record by allowing a paltry and nation-leading 236.9 yards per game during the regular season. The thing about running through brick walls, though, is that once you get through it the wall isn’t likely to track you down from behind. Ohio State had little trouble busting through on its way to building a big enough lead to survive on Saturday night.
The Badgers had allowed three plays of 50 or more yards in their first 12 games. The Buckeyes had three of them in the first 20 minutes at Lucas Oil Stadium. By the time they had built a 21-7 cushion early in the second quarter, Ohio State was averaging 14.1 yards per play.
Terry McLaurin, an Indianapolis native, found the first cracks with an 84-yard catch-and-run that provided the first hints that team speed would be lopsided. Then Parris Campbell shook free of a Badger tackler for a 57-yard touchdown. Freshman back J.K. Dobbins was up next, leaving another Wisconsin defender with an armful of air on his way to a 77-yard run that set up a score.
As he has done with numbing consistency for the last four years, J.T. Barrett filled the gaps between the flash. Less than a week removed from a knee scope, one of America’s more grizzled 22-year-olds carried the ball a team-high 19 times and threw for 211 yards and two scores.
Barrett’s status wasn’t a lock until he tested the right knee in warm-ups Saturday night. Nevertheless, he took Ohio State’s first snap, and every one after that, while winning his program-best 37th game as a starter — one more record for the most decorated quarterback in the history of one of college football’s most decorated teams.
Fittingly, Barrett wasn’t perfect while leading his team to a championship. He threw a pick-six to linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel in the first quarter to give Wisconsin its only touchdown of the game. He missed two open receivers for what could have been spirit-sinking touchdown passes just before halftime on a drive that ended with a missed field goal.
But amid a fourth-quarter Wisconsin comeback, Meyer turned to the player he trusts maybe more than anyone he’s ever coached and Barrett delivered again. Rather than kicking a red zone field goal on fourth-and-1, Meyer gave the Ball to Barrett who bounced backwards off of a pair of Wisconsin defenders and found a way to pick just enough yardage. The conversion milked precious extra minutes off the clock before a short field goal that served as the game’s final points.
Wisconsin freshman Jonathan Taylor, the Big Ten’s most productive rusher this season, managed only 41 yards for an offense that seemed more interested in trying to go around the Ohio State defense than through it. The Badgers rallied for a second half that was far more interesting than the first, but ultimately didn’t execute enough to complete a comeback.
The Buckeyes have won nine games by double digits this season, which makes their 55-24 loss at Iowa on Nov. 4 more befuddling with each passing week. It is a boulder of an aberration for Ohio State. The question now is if it’s big enough to block the Big Ten champion — and the Big Ten at large — from reaching the playoff for the first time in the four-team tournament’s brief history.
Will close wins against Wisconsin and Penn State be impressive enough to erase the blowout loss to Iowa? Will this week’s championship be enough to give Ohio State a chance to play for another? At the very least, a strong showing in Indianapolis should keep the Playoff’s 13 gatekeepers turning in their sleep on Saturday night. A nation now turns to a playoff committee that has some tough decision to make when the sun rises.