When Montee Ball left his feet at the two-yard line, it looked as though he might come down in the end zone and on top of the NCAA record book.
Ohio State sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier had other ideas.
Shazier met Ball in midair and punched the ball away from the leaping running back, who would have stood alone in NCAA history with 79 scores had the ball reached the goal line. The fumble only temporarily secured OSU’s lead, but the oh-so-close outcome that has become a motif for the Badgers in 2012 reared its head again Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, and it ultimately ruined senior night.
“Those seniors, they mean the world for me,” Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said with a shaky voice following a 21-14 overtime loss to the Buckeyes. “I know Montee is hurting. I know he wanted that, he was like a man possessed in the second (half) and it was fun to watch.”
Ball finished the night with 191 yards. He carried the ball a career-high 39 times. He tied the NCAA record with a yeoman’s effort on a seven-yard carry in the second quarter. Yet still, the Wisconsin seniors experienced a loss in their final home game for the first time under Bielema.
“It hurts to do everything in your power and still fall short, in any aspect of life,” said Ball, who conducted his postgame interview holding the game ball he held when notched the record-tying score.
Late in the fourth quarter, it looked like the senior night story would take a different path altogether. Redshirt senior quarterback Curt Phillips, making his first career start at Camp Randall, started Wisconsin’s final drive of regulation with 1:33 on the clock and 46 yards to go. At the time, he was 10-20 for 106 yards and on first down he took an 11-yard sack.
Then he found sophomore wide receiver Kenzel Doe for nine yards. He followed up with nine more to redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Fredrick, but needed a fourth-down completion to Jared Abbrederis to keep the drive alive. Another Abbrederis catch sandwiched between spikes to stop the clock, and Phillips capped off the drive with a five-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to redshirt junior tight end Jacob Pedersen. In his first two-minute drive, the senior who waited five years and beat three knee surgeries completed four of five passes for 48 yards.
“That’s exactly how we practice it every week,” Phillips said. “I think everybody did a great job of staying composed and trusting the plan.”
Ultimately for the Badgers, the plan and the desired outcome separated from each other in overtime. Ohio State went on offense first and scored in four plays. When the Badgers faced fourth-and-six from the 21, Phillips went back to Pedersen. This time, however, OSU safety Carlos Bryant undercut the route and swatted UW’s hopes last chance to the turf.
“Unfortunately, regulation ended well but we have to be able to finish all the way,” Pedersen said. “We have to finish. We had a lot of great drives that would stall out right near the red zone”
Wisconsin scored on two of four trips to the red zone, coming up empty on Ball’s fumble and a missed 40-yard field goal attempt on the first play of the fourth quarter. In all, UW had the ball in Ohio State territory on 7 of 11 possessions in regulation and was within two yards of midfield on two others.
In addition to the field position, the Buckeyes went scoreless over the last 41:37 of regulation and managed a season-low 236 yards of offense. Their previous low was 342 against Purdue Oct. 20.
“It’s frustrating to truly stop a team, a great team, an undefeated team that puts a lot of points, that has a ton of yards, and then to come up short,” redshirt junior free safety Dezmen Southward said.
The Badgers four losses this season have come by a combined 16 points. The seven-point loss to OSU tied the largest margin of defeat since falling 34-24 to Michigan State Oct. 2, 2010.
The whole story is not written yet. With a guaranteed berth in the Big Ten championship game, Wisconsin’s seniors have three games remaining. Ball, in all likelihood, will break the record. When and where, and what else goes along with it, remains to be seen.
“I’m sorry for our seniors, guys that did a lot for us over the last four or five years, not to send them out with a win,” Bielema said. “One of the things I’ve heard throughout this year is, ‘It’s not what’s behind us, it’s not what’s in front of 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.”