As the clock ticked down to its bitter end and the scoreboard read 27-21 in favor of the Ohio State Buckeyes, reality reared its ugly head towards the UW-Madison Badger Football Team. This Big Ten Championship clash against Ohio State was for more than a Conference crown. It was the chance to make a statement to the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee that the Badgers would not be denied. It was the answer to an identity crisis that has kept Wisconsin on the outside looking in of the CFP picture: Are they for real? Is the schedule going to leave them out or could an undefeated season and a conference title push them over the edge?
Let’s keep it real. Wisconsin did not have the toughest road to 12-0. They did not play any top-5 teams all season, and didn’t face anyone remotely close to the CFP until knucking with the Buckeyes. They were underwhelming, especially on the offensive end, in multiple games and were still never caught by weak competition. They did not have Ohio St or Penn St in the regular season. They did not play a non-conference powerhouse, which could have really boosted the Badger’s resume. It is clear that it is much better to lose earlier in the season, especially against great competition, than late November or early December. Ohio St lost to the playoff-bound Oklahoma Sooners in Week 2, who have the best offense in the country led by the best player in the country and Heisman winner Baker Mayfield. Ultimately, the double digit loss to a lackluster Iowa kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff, but having a high-profile matchup looks much better than the Badgers not playing anyone in the Top 10 all season until the conference championship. Who knows where the Badgers would be if they took their first loss in September and had the Big Ten title to bolster their chances?
This is not the decimation of a record-breaking season for the UW-Madison Badgers. It is quite an achievement (and maybe a shock) that this is the first season UW has been 12-0. In some ways, one could argue that this has been the most consummate group in Badger Football history. Six Badgers (Junior RG Beau Benzschawel, Junior LT Michael Deiter, Sophomore RT David Edwards, Junior ILB T.J. Edwards, Senior TE Troy Fumagalli and Freshman RB Jonathan Taylor) were named All Americans by one of the five entities acknowledged by the NCAA, which is a school record. Even with all the stars that have come through the gauntlet of Camp Randall, including Hall of Famer Ron Dayne, two-time Super Bowl Champion James White, and Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon, none have lit up “Running Back U” as immediately as Jonathan Taylor. JT23 has been one of the biggest surprises on the landscape of college football. Coming up as a true freshman who started the season not even slotted as #1 on the depth chart, Taylor’s explosion onto the scene absolutely erased all doubt, in terms of the running back competition for Paul Chryst and company. However, for any Badger fans lost in the sauce and searching for answers, there was a precedent set for the debacle against the Buckeyes.
The Michigan game is the perfect example of the struggles that determined where the Big Ten title would lie. Although it did not result in a loss for UW until the marquee matchup in Lucas Oil Stadium, the Wolverines exposed multiple issues for the Badgers that buried them against Ohio St. The offensive line (or at least the right side) has been a point of praise this season helping Wisconsin garner 229.2 rush yards per game. However, the Badger boys were hit by the front four of Michigan like never before especially in the first half. UW only managed 14 rushes for 59 yds, 49 on Taylor’s back. This would have averaged for the lowest total of the season. Luckily, the Wolverines did not capitalize off that work as the halftime score was 7-7 and the Badgers were able to pull away in the second half. Ohio St had been on a different caliber all season than anyone UW faced, including Michigan, and the bad habits came back to bite the Badgers. This quality showed as the Buckeyes pummeled the Badger offensive line and held JT23 and the crew to 60 yds for the entire game.“They have a lot of different schemes, and those guys played very fast, sideline to sideline, very aggressive. I felt like those guys played a heck of a game,” Taylor remarks on the walls Ohio St put up against him.
The Badger defense did their work against Michigan, holding them to 58 rushing yards and one score in the first half. The game was close though, and the Wolverines passing attack was proving themselves to be dangerous, gaining 133 pass yards. It did not seem like the momentum would stop. However, Michigan’s starting QB, Brandon Peters, got injured in the second half and UW was able to cruise for the rest of the game. They have been a model of consistency this season for the most part. This showed against the Buckeyes as Andrew Van Ginkel’s nine yard interception return for a touchdown gave the defense juice. Unfortunately, this energy did not hold as the pick-six was half of the Badger’s trips to the end zone on the night and the defense proceeded to give up 238 yards on the ground to the Buckeyes. “I can’t even explain in words how well they fought for me. That’s every week, though. Ever since the summer, I knew it was going to be a special year and I just want to thank all my offensive line. This trophy doesn’t really belong to me, it belongs to my offensive linemen,” Ohio St RB J.K. Dobbins credits the work of his front five against the Badger defense for his 170 yards and Grange-Griffin Most Valuable Player Trophy.
Michigan also forced UW’s special teams to punt eight times. This was only counteracted by the fact that Jim Harbaugh’s squad had nine punts, showing the resilience of the Badger defense to give them a chance to win. Unfortunately, J.T. Barrett and the Buckeye offense made them pay, putting up 21 points in the first half. “I would have liked to have seen —we knew it was a good defense. We would have liked to be more efficient, more productive,” Coach Paul Chryst discusses the goals coming into the game that the offense failed to complete. The fact that the special teams unit punted a Big Ten Championship record eight times and Sophomore Quarterback Alex Hornibrook nearly set a record with 40 pass attempts proved that the offense’s bad habits carried throughout the season caught up to the Badgers in a costly manner. “Obviously, it’s hard when you’re one-dimensional. You get in situations where they know when you’re doing certain things,” Fumagalli comments on the difficulties for the offense after Ohio St shut down the normally reliable run game.
There is also the J.T. Barrett factor that cannot be ignored. It is difficult to prepare for the three-time Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and it is even more difficult to frazzle him. Barrett, a fifth-year senior, has been through almost every type of scenario and has proven himself as a true leader. He was injured leading up to the game, but there was no way he would miss this moment to give the Badgers their first loss in nearly a calendar year. “We expected to see the best that he was and hats off to him, obviously. And heck of a quarterback. And for him to do what he’s done, nothing but respect,” Coach Chryst speaks on the preparation for and delivery from J.T. Barrett. A constant name in the Heisman conversation and a National Champion as a freshman, Barrett’s quality was unlike anyone the Badgers had faced all year and he showed them why. Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes were on a different level than Wisconsin and presented them with challenges that they were not able to handle.“Definitely. Ohio State is a top team. They’re definitely top-tier, along with Michigan. We knew we were going to get their best shot. We knew we were going to have to give them our best shot,” Taylor expresses the respect his team had for the Buckeyes.
Unfortunately, UW’s Alex Hornibrook failed to match the performance of the opposing QB. He went 19-40 for 229 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Hornibrook was also sacked three times, which showed that the offensive line could not cope with the heat brought by the Buckeyes. The sophomore has played without a conscience all year, bouncing back after terrible mistakes. The bad habits he has accumulated have given him a consistently inconsistent reputation. One never knows what to expect from him. He must realize that the best teams will not let his wayward play slide and JT23 can’t bail him out every time.“I think, just for all the guys in that locker room, and all the work that everybody’s put in. I think we did put everything out there on the field, and that’s what hurts the most, when you put everything into it. Obviously, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but I can honestly say, everybody in that locker room put everything they had into that game,” Hornibrook reflects on his teammates’ efforts, as well as his own. It is clear that this team is ride-or-die for Hornibrook. Nonetheless, he needs to step up and mature for this team to get to the highest level. As a sophomore, Hornibrook has a real opportunity for growth to improve consistency and decision making. These are both areas that cost him inexcusable incompletions, irresponsible interceptions, and the Badgers the College Football Playoff. “That’s what hurts the most, being able to get this far and then come up short, and seeing them celebrate on the field afterwards and thinking that could’ve been us — that definitely hurts,” Hornibrook laments on how close the Badgers were to the ultimate goal.
The bright side is that this season is not washed away by the defeat to the Buckeyes.“We went 12-0 this year. Every year, we always managed to get back to the Big Ten Championship. So, as a program, this definitely was a great opportunity for us, and it sucks that we didn’t get the opportunity to win, but our story is far from being over, and I’m happy to have one more game left with these seniors,” Junior RB Chris James sums this up perfectly, bringing perspective to a painful moment. An Orange Bowl battle with the Miami(FL) Hurricanes awaits Paul Chryst and his team. Although this is basically a home game for the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) runner-ups and Hornibrook needs to be extremely wary of the rambunctious “Turnover Chain” defense, the Badgers have a chance to show the country and prove to themselves that they can hang with college football’s elite and give the seniors a sunny send-off.