Wisconsin scored on the game’s opening drive. Multiple starters went down to injury in the first half. Justin Fields dodged multiple pass rushers, fumbled away a scoring chance and rarely looked comfortable in the pocket.
The Badgers made Ohio State look so mortal in Lucas Oil Stadium, frustrating the nation’s highest-scoring offense and gashing the highest-ranked defense.
Then the Buckeyes reverted to form.
Ohio State rallied for a 34-21 victory to win its third consecutive Big Ten championship. After looking unsettled and disjointed throughout the first half, the Buckeyes scored 27 unanswered points after halftime.
For the first time, the Buckeyes wake up Sunday morning knowing they are securely in the College Football Playoff. A 13-0 record ends their three-year drought from the national championship pursuit.
The nature of Saturday’s win may make that chase more difficult. Ohio State held the No. 1 CFP ranking after Tuesday’s update. However, No. 2 LSU thumped Georgia 37-10 in the SEC championship game and could overtake Ohio State for the top spot. No. 3 Clemson also crushed Virginia in the ACC championship.
Consider that uncertainty to be whatever is the opposite of a silver lining. At halftime, Ohio State’s greater concern was that it looked nothing like the team that had thoroughly flattened the Big Ten throughout the regular season.
They looked nothing like the team that squished the Badgers 38-7 at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 26. They certainly looked nothing like a championship team.
Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor managed only 52 yards on 20 carries that day. On Saturday he picked up 44 on his second carry — a breakaway touchdown to a 7-0 lead. Taylor rushed for 135 yards on only 13 carries in the first half.
Ohio State had made Wisconsin completely one-dimensional in that first meeting, holding receiver Quintez Cephus to 53 yards on three receptions. Saturday, the Badgers made Cephus a central part of the offense — especially when OSU cornerback Jeff Okudah left the game with what was later revealed to be an evaluation for a potential concussion. Cephus was a big piece of both of the Badgers’ first two touchdown drives and totaled 85 first-half yards.
Even when things went well for Ohio State, the success proved temporary.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day pulled one of the gutsiest play calls of the season when Drue Chrisman, on fourth-and-9 from the OSU 26, completed a fake-punt pass to Luke Farrell for a first down. Ohio State’s offense finally had a spark and drove inside the Wisconsin 10. But Fields lost a fumble on third down and the Buckeyes came away scoreless.
Ohio State finally scored on J.K. Dobbins’ 2-yard touchdown run with 42 seconds remaining in the first half. Yet another long run by Taylor allowed Wisconsin to flip the field, and Jack Coan’s 1-yard touchdown plunge gave Wisconsin a 21-7 halftime lead.
The Buckeyes had made adjustments in the past, bouncing back from shaky starts against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan in the regular season to post comfortable wins.
Yet in none of those games had Ohio State been so thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the ball.
The Buckeyes needed a spark, and it came when Fields escaped pressure on third down and lofted a pass downfield to Olave for a 50-yard field-flipper. Two plays later, tight end Jeremy Ruckert made a leaping one-handed catch in the end zone for a touchdown.
Jashon Cornell sacked Coan on third down on the following series, forcing a three-and-out punt. When Wisconsin lost the handle on the punt snap, Ohio State recovered, leading to Blake Haubeil’s 27-yard field goal.
That first defensive possession of the second half set a tone for the remainder of the game. Ohio State started to get to Coan more, and Taylor could not break free.
Wisconsin piled up 294 yards in the first half — an astonishing number considering Ohio State allowed 232.3 per game coming in. Yet at the point Haubeil kicked a 19-yard field goal to make it 34-21 with 4:39 left, the Badgers had managed only 23 second-half yards and four first downs.
K.J. Hill caught a pair of second-half touchdown passes. The first gave Ohio State the lead for good and made him the program’s all-time leader in receptions. The second pushed that lead out to 31-21 with 12:09 to play.
Okudah returned to play the second half. So did starting right guard Wyatt Davis, who exited with what appeared to be a right shoulder/arm injury in the second quarter.
Ohio State’s second-half performance looked familiarly dominant. Its first-half performance must be diagnosed and corrected. A well as Wisconsin played, the Buckeyes have held themselves to a higher standard, and further demanded one by putting themselves in this position on their schedule.
Ohio State will see better teams than Wisconsin ahead. The Buckeyes may not recover from the next 30-minute slump.
What it means
Ohio State became the first team to win three straight outright Big Ten Conference championships. The three consecutive titles are the most for the program since OSU won or shared five straight from 2005-09.
Ohio State learns its College Football Playoff destination at noon on Sunday .
Storylines abound for the next step in in Ohio State’s season. Will Justin Fields return to his home state of Georgia for the semifinals? Will the Buckeyes face former OSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy front-runner Joe Burrow? Will they get another shot at Clemson, who so unceremoniously knocked them out of their last playoff appearance, in 2016?