INDIANAPOLIS — With more at stake than ever, the University of Wisconsin football team suffered another crushing loss in the Big Ten Championship game.
The fourth-ranked Badgers saw a comeback fall short in their 27-21 loss to No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, ending a dream season one win short of a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“That’s what hurts the most — being able to get this far and then come up short,” UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. "Seeing them celebrating on the field afterwards, that could have been us. ... We wanted to finish this game, and we came up short."
UW sought its 15th Big Ten title and first since 2012 on Saturday but left with its third conference championship game defeat in the past four years.
The Buckeyes exposed a UW defense that entered the game ranked first nationally in total defense. Ohio State gained 309 yards on 33 plays in the first half alone and in less than 19 minutes became the second team this season to score more than 17 points against the Badgers.
That defense buckled down in the second half, however, and UW found ways to hang around. The Badgers didn’t score an offensive touchdown until Chris James’ 1-yard touchdown run — set up by a Leon Jacobs interception — and a successful two-point pass to tight end Troy Fumagalli cut the Buckeyes’ deficit to 24-21 with 12 minutes, 39 second remaining.
“I think everybody just kind of believed that we were going to do it,” Hornibrook said. “We all believed that we were going to score more points, that we were going to come back in that game. We started rolling a little bit."
The Badgers failed to finish the comeback, though. Ohio State added a 20-yard field goal with 5:20 left before holding the Badgers from scoring on their final two drives.
UW appeared to have momentum when it drove to the Buckeyes’ 43-yard line on its final possession, which began with 2:53 remaining, but a holding penalty on left tackle Michael Deiter put the Badgers in a difficult situation that they couldn’t recover from.
UW couldn’t get much going offensively before that fourth-quarter score, as six of its drives through three quarters lasted four plays or less. The Badgers’ first of few promising first-half drives ended when Hornibrook under-threw a fade route to Fumagalli in the red zone, giving Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward an opportunity for an interception.
That led to an 84-yard touchdown pass from J.T. Barrett to wide receiver Terry McLourin after McLourin burned Badgers safety Joe Ferguson in man-to-man coverage. The score came one play after Barrett escaped a tackle attempt from defensive end Alec James and picked up nine yards on third-and-7.
UW’s defense rebounded on its next series when outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel floated into the flat just in time to step in front of a pass intended for wide receiver Benjimen Victor.
Van Ginkel intercepted the ball at the Ohio State 9-yard line and stopped his momentum just enough to remain in bounds and return it for a touchdown to tie the game at 7 with 2:08 left in the first quarter.
The Buckeyes came right back with another big play, though, as Barrett threw a quick pass to Parris Campbell, who broke tackles from Natrell Jamerson and Nick Nelson on his way to a 57-yard score.
Two drives later, UW surrendered yet another massive gain when Ohio State freshman running back J.K. Dobbins shook off a tackle at the line of scrimmage before running 77 yards to the Badgers’ 1-yard line. Barrett punched it in on the next play to give the Buckeyes a 21-7 lead with 11:10 left in the second quarter.
UW entered Saturday’s game having allowed just three plays of 50-plus yards this season, but the Badgers surrendered four such plays to Ohio State.
“They made some plays, and certainly some big ones,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. "We certainly felt like they were a good offense and they were going to make some plays, and you just had to keep playing."
Van Ginkel came up with another huge play when he ripped the ball away from running back Mike Weber and recovered it on the Ohio State 11, but the Badgers still had to settle for a 28-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 21-10.
After Rafael Gaglianone’s 46-yard field goal cut the Buckeyes’ advantage to one score at 21-13, Dobbins broke through the line for another long gain. He ran 53 yards to the UW 12-yard line, which set Ohio State up for a 27-yard field goal with 7:25 left in the third quarter.
Ohio State contained star running back Jonathan Taylor better than any UW opponent this season, holding the true freshman to 41 yards on 15 carries. Hornibrook completed 19-of-40 passes for 229 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Dobbins finished with 174 yards on 17 carries, while Barrett completed 12-of-26 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Despite the loss, UW will now likely head to a New Year’s Six Bowl game, the matchup and location of which is set to be released Sunday.