Heading into the Big Ten Championship Game, much of the talk surrounding Ohio State centered on whether the Buckeyes would be able to maintain their place atop the College Football Playoffs after a presumed win over Wisconsin.
But the Badgers had other ideas, and for most of the night, Ohio State was in survival mode before finally beating Wisconsin, 34-21, to win its third consecutive Big Ten championship.
Quarterback Justin Field threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns to take home MVP honors. Running back J.K. Dobbins ran for 172 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries.
Things got off to an inauspicious start for Ohio State as, for the second straight week, the Buckeyes gave up a touchdown on the opening drive of the game.
After winning the coin toss and electing to receive the opening kickoff, Wisconsin marched 83 yards on just five plays. Jonathan Taylor’s 44-yard touchdown run gave Wisconsin the early 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Ohio State picked up a pair of first downs to move the ball to the Wisconsin 37-yard line. But facing a 4th and 7, quarterback Justin Fields was pressured and sacked, ending the drive.
The two teams traded punts before Wisconsin would add to their lead early in the second quarter. Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan capped off a 14-play, 80-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run to push the Badger lead to 14-0.
In desperate need of a spark, the Ohio State offense was again unable to muster much of a drive as Wisconsin forced the Buckeyes to go three-and-out. But punter Drue Chrisman beautifully executed Ryan Day’s called fake punt, finding tight end Luke Farrell for 21 yards to extend the drive.
Ohio State couldn’t stay out of their own way, however, and a fumble by Fields was recovered by Wisconsin’s Matt Henningsen at the Wisconsin 4-yard line to thwart the Buckeyes’ first chance at points.
Ohio State finally broke through with less than a minute left in the first half. Dobbins’ 2-yard touchdown run cut the Wisconsin lead to 14-7 and presumably would send the Buckeyes into the locker room with momentum to build on.
But despite just 42 seconds showing on the clock, Ohio State was unable to get a stop. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor took the first play 45 yards down to the Ohio State 30-yard line, and three plays later it was Coan falling into the end zone from a yard out to up the Badger lead back to 14 points at 21-7 as the two teams went in the break.
For Ohio State, it was the first time they had trailed at halftime all season and more than double their largest deficit of the season.
But the game proved to be a tale of two halves as the Buckeyes came out swinging with their backs up against the wall to start the second half, beginning with the opening possession.
Fields found Chris Olave for 50 yards to move the ball down to Wisconsin’s 22-yard line. Two plays later, it was Jeremy Ruckert spectacularly hauling in a 16-yard touchdown pass with one hand to bring Ohio State back within a score at 21-14 less than two minutes into the third quarter.
Ohio State received its first major break of the game on the ensuing drive via a special teams gaff by Wisconsin. Following a three-and-out by the Wisconsin offense, punter Anthony Lotti fumbled the snap and was forced to fall on the ball at the Wisconsin 16.
Ohio State was held to a 27-yard made field goal by Blake Haubeil bring the Buckeyes within four points at 21-17.
Two drives later, Fields found K.J. Hill on a 16-yard touchdown pass and catch to give Ohio State their first lead of the game at 24-21 with less than three minutes left in the third.
The fourth quarter was more domination by the Buckeyes as Fields and Hill connected again, and Haubeil’s 24-yard field goal with four minutes left in the game made it 27 consecutive points for the Buckeyes as they salted away the final minutes.
Following the game, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day admitted he was nervous heading into halftime. He said of what the scene was like inside the locker room during the break, “We had a group of guys in that locker room who were barking at each other that they weren’t going to leave this place without a win. Then we all got together and said, ‘This is like life, it isn’t always going to work out the way you want it.’ The challenge was we were going to find out what was really made inside of us. I think you saw that.”
Day said of his emotions following the win, “Felt great for the leaders, this team, we’ve been through a lot together. I’m just proud of them. There were so many expectations put on us this season going into the season. Our ability to stay locked in week in, week out, play together as a team, and then, for the first real time, face adversity, we’re losing in a game … The way we responded in that third quarter was unbelievable.
“You could feel the electricity in the stadium. We imposed our will. I think that goes to show you how special this team is. Again, after these three weeks, three emotional wins. To get this championship, it was just a great feeling.”
Ohio State, who was probably firmly in the College Football Playoff regardless of the outcome, will now wait to see whether their performance was enough to hold on to the number one ranking in the playoff. ESPN will reveal the final rankings at noon on Sunday.