All season long, Wisconsin faced questions about the strength of its schedule, a regular season that included only a couple of low-ranked opponents.
On Saturday night at the Big Ten Conference championship, those questions got answered. Sort of.
The No. 4 Badgers put up a gutsy fight against No. 8 Ohio State, but fell just short in a last-minute comeback attempt, losing 27-21 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
It was the first loss of the season for Wisconsin (12-1) and almost certainly knocked the Badgers out of a College Football Playoff spot.
The Buckeyes (11-2), meanwhile, put themselves in the middle of a tricky conversation about which four teams should play for the national title.
“We have two wins over two top-4 teams,” coach Urban Meyer said. “We’re the conference champions … we deserve a shot.”
Ohio State faced a big question of its own coming into this game.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett had recently aggravated a knee injury when a photographer bumped into him on a crowded sideline at Michigan. He underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week.
“He’s just one of the toughest human beings I’ve ever come across in my career,” Meyer said before the game. “And a guy that’s all in.”
Barrett played and, on the Buckeyes’ second possession, looked nimble enough scrambling for a first down. That set up his 84-yard touchdown pass to Terry McLaurin for a 7-0 lead.
There would be other highlights for Ohio State as the senior threw for a second long touchdown and rushed for a third score after running back J.K. Dobbins burst up the middle for 77 yards.
Dobbins ended up with 17 carries for 174 yards.
The game might have gotten out of hand if it weren’t for Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel.
Late in the first quarter, Van Ginkel leaped to intercept a Barrett pass and rumbled nine yards for a touchdown. Later, he recovered a fumble to set up a 28-yard field goal that made the score 21-10 at halftime.
These teams had met under similar circumstances before.
In 2014, the Badgers came into the conference championship as slight favorites and were dismantled, 59-0, by Ohio State.
The margin of victory gave the fifth-ranked Buckeyes enough juice to leapfrog Texas Christian in the rankings and qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
They ended up winning the national title game against Oregon that winter.
This time, Wisconsin Coach Paul Chryst understood the gravity of the situation.
“It’s all about winning the Big Ten Championship,” he said. “And that’s huge.”
The Badgers began their comeback effort with a field goal midway through third quarter. Though freshman running back Jonathan Taylor was largely held in check, gaining 41 yards on 15 carries, his quarterback picked up the pace for Wisconsin.
Alex Hornibrook passed for 229 yards and made a number of clutch throws in the late going.
When running back Chris James scored from one yard out early in the fourth quarter, the score was 24-21.
But Ohio State added a 20-yard field goal and Wisconsin’s final drive ended in an interception.
“Credit to them,” Chryst said. “They made the big plays.”
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