MADISON, Wis. — If you were given a dollar for every time one of Wisconsin’s players used the word “embarrassing” to describe their performance against Ohio State last season, you probably would’ve been able to buy yourself a nice steak dinner by the time Saturday arrived.
On that night a year ago in Columbus, Ohio, the Badgers and Buckeyes looked worlds apart, an ever-widening gap separating Wisconsin from even fielding a competitive team against an elite program.
That backdrop set a low bar for first-year Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell to clear when Ohio State arrived at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, but it was still a significant one for the Badgers. The Buckeyes were unbeaten, possessed a top-five defense and held national championship aspirations. A strong Wisconsin performance mattered, not simply for the singular outcome but to show necessary progress with discipline and mental toughness in what is always considered a measuring-stick game for the Badgers.
So consider Wisconsin’s 24-10 loss to No. 3 Ohio State an encouraging sign of sorts. The Badgers left plenty of mistakes on the field: Dropped passes and special-teams miscues come to mind. They also had the ball with less than eight minutes remaining in the game and a chance to tie the score despite missing two of their top playmakers — wide receiver Chimere Dike and running back Braelon Allen — due to injuries sustained in the first half. Wisconsin played as hard as it had all season, with a defense that allowed the Badgers to compete.
“It’s definitely significant improvement from last year,” center Tanor Bortolini said. “I don’t think that makes anybody feel better. It feels like we should’ve been able to get it done, and we didn’t.”
This was one of the rare games that Wisconsin players would have been right to say that nobody believed in them. Wisconsin entered as a 14.5-point underdog, marking the largest spread against the Badgers at home in more than 30 years. UW was able to stay in the game because its defense forced three first-half turnovers, intercepting Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord twice and recovering a McCord fumble on a fourth-down sack.
Fickell doesn’t believe in moral victories. But he at least came away with something to build on for the final four regular-season games. With Wisconsin trailing 10-3 at halftime, Fickell stressed to his players that the team needed to get the game to the fourth quarter so the Badgers simply could have a chance. That’s exactly what Wisconsin did.
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Wisconsin quarterback Braedyn Locke led a sensational touchdown drive to open the third quarter, without Dike or Allen, to tie the score at 10. He completed a 27-yard pass to receiver Bryson Green, scrambled up the middle for a 29-yard gain and tossed a 13-yard touchdown to receiver Will Pauling. The Badgers then had three possessions while trailing 17-10, including two in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t muster the big plays necessary to get over the hump.
Wisconsin QB Braedyn Locke’s first start rewards a lifetime of preparation
“I’m proud of them for following the plan and doing that, getting to the fourth quarter,” Fickell said. “Then the fourth quarter comes, and we can’t execute. We can’t make the plays we need to make, the stops we need to stop. That’s what it comes down to. So kind of gut-wrenching for those guys and for all of us just because of all you put into it, what you built it up to be.”
This has not been the season Wisconsin or its fans envisioned back when spring practices began and it appeared as though the Badgers might possess the talent necessary to climb another rung in the Big Ten. Wisconsin’s transitions to new offensive and defensive schemes have been far from seamless. Too many times, the defense has surrendered big plays. Too many times, the offense has failed to effectively move the ball.
Injuries and player departures, particularly on offense, haven’t helped. Backup running back Chez Mellusi broke his left leg more than a month ago. Starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai broke his right hand two weeks ago. Wisconsin hasn’t gotten much help in the passing game from its tight ends, and the receivers haven’t consistently been big-play threats as anticipated.
But Badgers outside linebacker Darryl Peterson was one of several players who said going toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country indicated that the team was moving in the right direction for the long term with its mindset and approach. Last season, Ohio State hammered Wisconsin 52-21 and led by four touchdowns before the Badgers’ offense crossed midfield.
“I’m proud of how we came out, how we attacked, how we prepared all week and the way that we fought this game,” Badgers safety Hunter Wohler said. “Playing against a team like that, you have to be on your best, and you have to be darn-near perfect, and we weren’t. They capitalized on those mistakes that we had. But I’m proud of the fight that we have, how we came out and played.”
Wisconsin takeaways: Missed opportunities, injuries doom Badgers against Ohio State
The difference on Saturday, as it usually is when Wisconsin plays Ohio State, is that the Buckeyes simply had better playmakers. The two best players on the field — wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and running back TreVeyon Henderson — were the reason Ohio State won. Harrison went for six catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Henderson had 24 carries for 162 yards and one touchdown. When Ohio State needed an answer, those two players were there.
Wisconsin would’ve been hard-pressed to win even with everybody healthy, which is true for every team in the league. It’s worth noting that Ohio State’s regular-season record against the Big Ten since 2012 is an astounding 90-6. But with Dike suffering a right-leg injury on a second-quarter kick return and Allen injuring his left leg on a third-down shovel pass that was stopped short of the goal line before halftime, it was too much to overcome. That series, in particular, was a backbreaker for the Badgers because they faced first-and-goal from the 1 and came away with just three points.
“We have some things that maybe we can feel good about,” Locke said. “But at the end of the day, it’s a hard loss. It’s a game that we had a chance to win and didn’t. So we need to grow from it, and we need to find a way to win these tight games in the fourth quarter.”
Despite everything that has happened this season, Wisconsin finds itself right in the thick of a wide-open (and mediocre) Big Ten West race. The Badgers, 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten, ended the night locked in a four-way tie for first place with Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. Iowa beat Wisconsin, but the Hawkeyes also possess the worst offense in the country, which makes no victory down the stretch a guarantee.
Wisconsin, which lost its 10th consecutive game against Ohio State, hasn’t solved how to beat the Buckeyes. Maybe that will come in time under Fickell. That’s part of why he was hired, as the program seeks to compete at a championship level. Even winning the West won’t be easy, particularly if Allen is sidelined for any period of time. But it felt like there were some noteworthy steps taken Saturday for a program trying to find a path toward more consistent success.
“We fell short, but this team is strong,” Badgers defensive lineman James Thompson Jr. said. “Strong mind and strong will, and we’re going to keep pushing, keep fighting.”
(Top photo of Braelon Allen: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)