INDIANAPOLIS – It was too soon to produce any answers. Not after the night the Wisconsin Badgers experienced in their record-setting 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game. To say something went wrong might be an understatement. To say something went terribly wrong might be getting closer to what happened to Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night.
The Badgers suffered their first shutout loss since 1997, ending a streak of 231 games, and their first shutout loss to a Big Ten rival since 1996. Their nationally-ranked defense was overmatched. They watched Ohio State sophomore Cardale Jones, a third-team quarterback earlier this season, become a star.
“We knew coming into the game that he’s a great quarterback,” said Badger senior inside linebacker Marcus Trotter. “Every player that plays for Ohio State is a great athlete. They were a great team. But it was just more of us mis-fitting runs. Kudos to Ohio State. They’re a great football team. A lot of things they gained were on our mistakes.”
Trotter was responsible for a team-high 10 tackles for his second-straight double-digit tackle game and fourth for the season.
“As a senior, I tried to have the defense stay calm, even though what was going on,” he said. “I feel like I take full responsibility of what was going on on the field in regards to not rallying the troops together. I felt like the defense today was in some parts playing a little timid.”
Over the last six games, the Badgers’ defense had been allowing opponents an average of 90.7 rushing yards. Ohio State gained 301.
The Badgers had allowed opponents an average of 16.1 points per game, their fifth-lowest average in the last 50 years. They allowed 59 points, 38 in the first half.
Wisconsin had ranked second among major colleges with an average of 260.3 total yards allowed. The Badgers gave up 558.
Head Coach Gary Andersen said that he didn’t agree with the Trotter’s timid theory.
“Marcus Trotter is my guy, but the word ‘timid’ doesn’t come into my vocabulary in any way, shape or form,” Andersen said. “It was a physical game. We played with physicality. I think the key is you look back and say, ‘What went wrong?’”
So what did go wrong? It appeared that not even the Badgers knew. Andersen said that in the moment he had no idea, but felt he could have coached the team better.
“I’ll take a long, hard look at the tape on both sides of the football,” he said. “We played a very talented football team. We didn’t execute in key moments. There were a lot of balls in the air contested on both sides. Tremendous players on Ohio State’s side came down with those balls.”
The Badgers made their third championship appearance in four years. After winning the first two Big Ten title games, all eyes were on the veteran team, especially junior running back Melvin Gordon III, whose season total of 2,260 yards was the fourth-best in major-college history.
Wisconsin’s Heisman Trophy candidate was pushed, shoved and tackled repeatedly, play after play after play. Nothing went right. Gordon’s career average of 8.4 yards per carry was better than every Heisman Trophy-winning running back since 1970. He was held to 76 yards, his second-worst total of the season, on an average of just 2.9 yards per carry.
“We didn’t make any explosive plays,” Gordon said after the game. “We lacked that today. [We] lost focus on the ball. That’s how it came out. I was just trying to hard to make a play, [to] get the team going.”
After Ohio State’s defense shut down Wisconsin’s running game, junior quarterback Joel Stave had to look elsewhere.
Stave himself had a season-high 43 pass attempts, which was just the second time in his career that he had thrown the ball 40 or more times in a game. Yet, none of those passes found the back of the end zone.
“It’s a tough loss,” he said. “You never want to say what we’re doing out there is embarrassing. We work too hard and put too much time into it to go out there and say that we’re embarrassing ourselves. That’s a good team and they played really well tonight and got the best of us.”
Shortly after the game, it seemed the Badgers had already put the loss behind them and were focused on their appearance in a bowl game. On Sunday, the Badgers learned they will meet Auburn in the Outback Bowl at Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 1. The challenge, Andersen said, is for this generation of Badgers to win a bowl game for the first time. Early Sunday morning, as they searched for answers, Gordon and Trotter agreed with their coach. It is now time to look ahead.
“You’ve got to be a man and stand up to it,” Trotter said. “That’s what this team is. We have a lot of men that handle adversity on and off the field. We’re excited to go back in the film room, make the corrections of what we did wrong. Use this [defeat] to burn a fire, to be motivated to prove to everyone the team that we can be.
“Because this wasn’t Wisconsin football today,” Trotter said, “and we’re going to prove that the next game we play.”
National Sports Journalism Center
Photo: Ohio State safety Vonn Bell celebrates a Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin in 2014 (Marvin Fong, The Plain Dealer).