They set out before this season to do something that had never been done in Wisconsin football program history. In their own understated, confident way, these Badgers began fall camp recognizing that, if they performed up to their potential, they could compete with any team in the country.
That approach, coupled with exceptional talent and coach Paul Chryst’s week-to-week mantra, resulted in one of the most sensational seasons Wisconsin had ever seen. For 12 games, the Badgers methodically trampled through opponents, arising hope that maybe this could be the season in which they elevated the program to uncharted heights by vying for a national title.
But in one night, and on one drive, that dream came crashing down.
No. 8 Ohio State defeated No. 4 Wisconsin 27-21 on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, shattering the Badgers’ College Football Playoff visions just shy of reaching the Promised Land. Wisconsin had the ball in the waning minutes with a chance to set its course to the four-team playoff before Ohio State defensive back Damon Webb picked off Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook on a last-gasp fourth-and-20 attempt.
When it was over, white helmets with the red motion W logo hung listlessly by the sides of players as they stared off in the distance. Badgers linebacker Chris Orr stood on the field, his hands on his hips in disbelief, before receiving a hug and encouraging words from freshman safety Scott Nelson. Wide receiver Kendric Pryor wrapped his right arm around teammate A.J. Taylor, who buried his head beneath a towel on his way off the field.
There was little anybody could, or needed to, say
“It hurts,” Badgers running back Chris James said. “For the first time, we’re 12-0. It started back in camp. We had dreams and aspirations of being in the national championship game. To see it all come down to one drive and come up short, it definitely hurts.”
One week earlier, Wisconsin had decimated rival Minnesota 31-0 and celebrated on the field by fictitiously chopping down the goal post with Paul Bunyan’s Axe. The Badgers had polished off their first unbeaten regular season in 105 years, and three days later, they ascended to fourth in the playoff rankings for the first time. With a matchup against Ohio State on the horizon, the implications for the league title game were obvious.
“We knew what was at stake,” James said. “As much as we tried to not really care about what’s on the outside, we all knew. If we win, we’re in. If we don’t, we’re not in.”
If Wisconsin was to attain its goal, players understood they needed to put together one of their most complete games this season against its toughest competition. All season, Wisconsin had lived on the edge by relying on its otherworldly defense while the team’s offensive consistency varied from game to game. The Badgers entered the weekend with 21 turnovers, which ranked tied for No. 96 in the FBS.
As the Big Ten title game loomed, two central questions for Wisconsin were: Would the Badgers’ offense avoid the mistakes that had caused the team to fall into early holes against lesser foes? And could the Badgers compete with the athletes on Ohio State’s side?
The answers came swiftly and were not favorable for the Badgers. In the first quarter, Hornibrook underthrew tight end Troy Fumagalli, and Ohio State defensive back Denzel Ward intercepted the pass at his own 4-yard line. It marked Hornibrook’s 14th interception this season and the ninth game in the past 10 in which he was picked off.
Four plays later, Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett connected with receiver Terry McLaurin on an 84-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 Buckeyes lead. The Buckeyes gashed the Badgers’ typically sound defense for four plays of at least 50 yards, which was more than Wisconsin had surrendered all season. They finished with 449 yards of total offense, which also was the most Wisconsin had given up this season.
Hornibrook completed 19 of 40 passes for 229 yards with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He was forced to set a career high for passing attempts because the Badgers failed to effectively run the ball. Wisconsin had 32 carries for 60 yards. Star running back Jonathan Taylor ran 15 times for 41 yards. Taylor entered the game averaging 150.5 rushing yards per game.
“They definitely did a great job filling gaps,” Taylor said. “Definitely played fast sideline to sideline. Those guys did a great job covering the whole field.”
Through it all, Wisconsin hung tough and still found itself with an opportunity to punch its ticket to the playoff when the Badgers took possession at their own 29-yard line with 2:59 remaining in the game.
On first-and-20, Hornibrook threw a pass intended for receiver Danny Davis that fell incomplete. It appeared on the play that Davis was tripped, but no flag was thrown. Instead, Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter was flagged for a holding penalty. Hornibrook then threw four consecutive incompletions. His final throw, a four-verticals set intended for Fumagalli, resulted in Webb’s interception.
“That’s what hurts the most, being able to get this far and then come up short,” Hornibrook said. “Seeing them celebrating on the field afterward, just seeing that could’ve been us. It definitely hurts.”
The game wasn’t akin to Ohio State’s 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin during the 2014 Big Ten title game, when the outcome revealed a cavernous gap between the two programs. But in many respects, the result Saturday night felt even worse. Wisconsin had come so far and appeared ready to break through on the national stage after losing five consecutive games to Ohio State.
Wisconsin is 12-1 and will play in a nice New Year’s Six bowl game. But that game was of little consolation to the Badgers late Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
“It just sucks right now,” Badgers fullback Austin Ramesh said.
Added Deiter: “There’s nothing to say that can really cheer you up. It’s just something that you’ve got to battle through. We just weren’t better today. No one’s happy.”
Wisconsin is king of the Big Ten West. Yet in order to conquer the league, the Badgers will need to step up on the final weekend in Indianapolis. They now have lost their last three trips to the league title game. Wisconsin has won at least 10 games for a fourth consecutive season and a ninth time in the past 13 seasons. The Badgers are routinely among the better teams in college football but haven’t been able to say they were the best by season’s end.
Falling short of that goal will sting for some time. Wisconsin compiled one of the more memorable seasons in Badgers history. But it will be remembered as much for what the Badgers didn’t achieve as for what they did.
“Everyone knows what we’ve done this year,” Deiter said. “And it was a special season and we have a ton to be proud of. But it will take time. Whenever you lose a game like that, it’s going to take time because everyone was bought in. Everyone was ready to win and put everything out there. That’s why it hurts.”