Hindsight came out in full force late Saturday night after the University of Wisconsin’s 27-21 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game, and there are plenty of reasons for it.
What if the defense had prevented just one of the Buckeyes’ four 50-yard gains? What if officials called pass interference against Danny Davis on the final drive? What if Alex Hornibrook didn’t throw a red-zone interception in the first quarter or miss a wide-open Troy Fumagalli downfield on a big third-down in the second quarter?
Not only did a victory feel attainable by flipping any of these “what-if” questions, but imagining those alternate realities also left Badgers fans ruing the missed opportunity for a coveted College Football Playoff spot.
The margin for error shrinks against a team as talented as Ohio State, and all those miscues were too much to overcome. Credit UW for fighting back in the game to give itself a chance, but coming close only seemed to frustrate fans more in the end.
I’ve heard plenty of overreaction in the days following, much of it (unsurprisingly) centered around Hornibrook. One reader even argued that “the upward trajectory of the program is at risk” because the Badgers can’t recruit or develop quarterbacks good enough to win a big game.
Much of that comes from the position Hornibrook plays, but I could make a long list of those who struggled in this game, and Hornibrook wouldn’t be the first name on it.
Hornibrook missed throws, the offensive line lost the battle up front, wide receivers struggled to get separation, linebackers missed gaps and defensive backs were beat in coverage.
One of the most notable who struggled Saturday was left tackle Michael Deiter, who hadn’t allowed too many more pressures over the first 12 games combined than the nine he gave up against the Buckeyes, per Pro Football Focus.
Here are a few plays where he got beat in pass protection, one way or another.
Defensive end Jalyn Holmes also forced his way past Deiter on the final drive and drew the holding call that killed UW’s chances of a last-minute comeback.
The four clips above weren’t necessarily a list of Deiter’s worst plays, but I picked them for a reason. Go back and watch them again while considering the situation and big picture of the play.
In all four, Ohio State brought six rushers on third down, and UW couldn’t contain it even with extra help in protection. The pass catchers are also not even the slightest bit open, leaving Hornibrook stuck with nowhere to go.
This sums up a major reason why scoring became so difficult for the Badgers’ offense in this game. Ohio State could sell out against the run and bring the house after Hornibrook without much worry because of the confidence the Buckeyes have in their defensive backs to excel in man-to-man coverage.
When UW’s toughest opponents during the regular season (Michigan, Northwestern) contained its running game early, the Badgers were able to complete a few deep passes over the top that somewhat unlocked their offense.
That didn’t happen in this game outside of one tightly-contested, 33-yard Davis catch in the third quarter that led to a field goal.
All this isn’t to say Hornibrook wasn’t at fault. His first interception was a really poor one — underthrowing a fade route to Fumagalli that simply couldn’t be underthrown — and the constant pressure from Ohio State seemed to have an effect on him, too.
He doesn’t step into his throw in the first video below, and the ball sails on him. There’s also no reason for him to throw off his back foot in the second, which nearly leads to a game-ending interception.
If you go back and look at the second Deiter clip earlier in the story, it looks like Hornibrook may have room to slide right and step up in the pocket, but he throws a jump pass to Davis instead.
I’ll touch on big plays allowed by the defense below, but here's a more simple bottom line to this loss: Ohio State’s clearly better than any team UW has faced this season. The Badgers had to be at or near their best to win, and they weren’t.
— UW’s defense actually played really well for most of this game.
Outside of the four gains that went for 50-plus, Ohio State managed just 178 total yards on its other 64 plays (2.78 yards per play). The Buckeyes also scored just 6 points in the second half.
Those big plays did happen, though, and they’re a major reason why the Badgers ultimately lost.
It was easy to see why some of those occurred. Parris Campbell’s 57-yard touchdown came after Nick Nelson and Natrell Jamerson, usually a sure tackler, simply couldn’t bring him down after a quick screen. By my count, UW missed 12 tackles in this game.
J.K. Dobbins’ runs of 53 and 77 yards were mostly a product of linebackers getting sucked out of position and away from their gap (along with Conor Sheehy missing a tackle on the latter).
I do want to take a closer look at Ohio State’s first touchdown, though. When Terry McLaurin blew past Joe Ferguson for an 84-yard score, most of us chalked it up to Ferguson getting burned and moved on.
There’s more to it, though. Look at Ferguson’s side of the field pre-snap and track how the play develops.
With four Buckeyes lined up wide on that side of the field, Ferguson signals for Leon Jacobs to align himself further out (although he seems a bit reluctant to do so). At the snap, Jacobs appears to play zone with the rest of UW’s linebackers, while Jamerson sprints up towards Mike Weber in the flat.
Two Ohio State wide receivers run straight down the field, and Ferguson’s the only guy to deal with it. There’s the slightest bit of hesitation on his part, and McLaurin takes advantage.
It’s hard to know exactly why the Badgers were in this position, but for starters, being in base defense here is not ideal. The Buckeyes have 11 personnel on the field, and the way they lined up that personnel would have led to a major mismatch even without any miscommunication issues.
Ohio State has a tight end lined up as the widest player on the field (covered by cornerback Nick Nelson), a running back in the slot (which Jamerson pursued) and a wide receiver (Campbell) ready to run a wheel route out of the backfield on the weak side (which Derrick Tindal took care of).
That left two more wide receivers on the left side of the formation. With three down linemen in the game and linebackers playing zone coverage, that meant Ferguson was the only defensive back left to cover both. The best-case scenario here would have been if Jacobs ran out wide to cover the tight end or running back.
The play before this — a third-down conversion — UW had a nickel package on the field against this same personnel for Ohio State. It appeared as if the Buckeyes hurried to the line after seeing nose tackle Olive Sagapolu enter the game for cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams, and the Badgers didn’t have time to sort out how they wanted to deal with the four-wide formation.
Here’s a longer video that includes the play before the touchdown. The broadcast doesn’t show UW’s substitution, but watch J.T. Barrett look to the sideline and then hurry his linemen into position.
This wasn’t all on Ferguson. There had to have been some sort of miscommunication for the Badgers along the way.
Here are a few other notes after re-watching UW’s loss to the Buckeyes:
— UW used Cole Van Lanen (9 snaps, per PFF) and Patrick Kasl (1 snap) as blocking tight ends Saturday after Zander Neuville suffered a season-ending injury against Minnesota. I thought Van Lanen played alright, although it’s a small sample size and didn’t really involve any pass blocking. If Deiter decides to return for his senior season, it’ll be interesting to see if either Van Lanen or Kasl can make enough progress to fight for a starting spot and push Deiter to left guard.
— Garrett Rand played 25 snaps for UW on Saturday, per PFF, not too far behind Sagapolu’s 33. With the Badgers’ top three defensive ends graduating, don’t be surprised to see Rand move back to defensive end and earn a starting job alongside Sagapolu and Isaiahh Loudermilk next year.
— I’m amazed FOX didn’t show any replays of the potential pass interference against Danny Davis during UW’s final drive, especially since there was a long break after that play for an injured player. It sure looked like a penalty live — which would have allowed the Badgers to re-do first-and-10 rather than face their first-and-20 death sentence — but only a replay could have told us for sure whether the ball was catchable.