INDIANAPOLIS— Trailing 31-0 near the end of the first half, Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Melvin Gordon fumbled deep inside Wisconsin territory, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa recovered the ball and returned it for a touchdown.
That was a microcosm of how the Big Ten championship went for No. 11 Wisconsin (7-1 Big Ten, 10-3 overall), as No. 6 Ohio State (8-0, 12-1) trampled the Badgers Saturday in a 59-0 romp. It was the first shutout loss for Wisconsin since Aug. 24, 1997, against Syracuse.
It was an ugly game from the start. The Buckeyes marched 77 yards on six plays less than two minutes after kickoff, scoring on a 39-yard pass from redshirt sophomore third-string quarterback Cardale Jones to senior wide receiver Devin Smith.
That would be the first of multiple big plays for the Buckeyes, who torched the Badger defense for 10 plays of at least 20 yards, including four of their touchdowns.
“All they do is just rely on the deep ball,” said senior safety Peniel Jean. “They have great receivers that go up to get the ball and we had trouble locating the football. That’s where they took advantage.”
Wisconsin looked completely out of sync defensively. The Badgers struggled to contain Jones, a read-option quarterback making his first career start after J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week. Jones was 12-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP.
While Jones’ impact on the ground was negligible, his effectiveness through the air opened up rushing lanes for running back Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for 220 yards and two touchdowns.
“I don’t want to say it’s tough because you don’t know what to expect, but that’s no excuse,” said sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton. “You still got to try to find ways to stop him and stop the offense from rolling.”
Wisconsin appeared to have miscommunication problems on defense throughout the first half. Elliott had massive gaps to run through, Jones had plenty of time in the pocket to throw and several Buckeye receivers were left wide open down the field.
“They didn’t confuse us at all. For some reason the defensive line, we weren’t getting the calls, some of the linebackers weren’t doing their assignments,” said redshirt senior linebacker Marcus Trotter. “It was just a whole team. Defense just for some reason wasn’t on the same page.”
While the defense, ranked No. 2 nationally in yards allowed coming into Saturday, struggled mightily, the offense didn’t do its job, either. The Badgers ran just two plays in Buckeye territory during the entire first half.
Redshirt junior quarterback Joel Stave had a dreadful game, going 17-43 for just 187 yards and three interceptions. Ohio State got consistent pressure all night long and Stave struggled to overcome it.
With the passing game a total non-factor, the Buckeyes stacked the box and cut off running room for Gordon. The Heisman candidate ran for just 76 yards on 26 carries, an average of less than three yards per rush.
“I knew their whole game plan was to come in and slow me down,” Gordon said. “It’s exactly what they did. We needed some explosive plays from everyone and there was a lack of explosive plays from everyone, including myself.”
While the Badgers struggled, Ohio State flexed its muscles. The Buckeyes accumulated 558 yards of offense, averaging nearly 10 yards per play. They held Wisconsin to just 3.2 yards per play and forced four turnovers, a resounding closing argument that allowed the Big Ten champions to sneak into the inaugural College Football Playoff.
It was a disheartening finish for Wisconsin, who had won seven games in a row to win the West division and make its third Big Ten championship game appearance in four years.
“As disappointing as it is, there was a lot of positives from this season, and we just got to look at those, learn from this week and get as much as we can out of bowl prep,” Stave said.
Head coach Gary Andersen must now help the Badgers put this loss behind them and prepare for the Outback Bowl against Auburn (4-4 SEC, 8-4 overall) New Year's Day. Wisconsin has not won a bowl game since 2009.
“They got knocked down, took a big shot tonight. They’ll be excited to go play,” Andersen said. “No kid in that room has won a bowl game. The opportunity is there for them to do that on a big-time stage, big-time environment.”