INDIANAPOLIS — This will not rank with history’s greatest comebacks, like the New England Patriots against the Atlanta Falcons or the New World Patriots against the British Redcoats. The deficit the Ohio State Buckeyes faced wasn’t exceptionally daunting, and the opposition from Wisconsin’s Badgers was feisty but not fearsome.
This was a champion’s comeback, though. Ohio State’s 34-21 triumph was its fourth in nine years of the Big Ten Championship game and its third in a row. The Buckeyes have won this league 38 times in their history. This was their third victory in three weeks against a top-15 opponent — Penn State, then Michigan, then Wisconsin — all by double-figure margins.
Were this any other sport, we would be discussing the resolve of running back J.K. Dobbins, the perseverance of quarterback Justin Fields and the rejuvenation of the best defense in college football after it wandered off the stage for the first half-hour.
This is college football, however, which means instead of all this we shall debate the artistic merits of the OSU performance as if it were a revival of a Harold Pinter play.
They appeared flat. Uninspired. Worst of all: unconvincing. Not only will there be no Tony Awards for this performance, they ought to lose the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff for something that mechanical.
What the Playoff committee ought to be emphasizing when deciding how to rank the teams for the Playoff is what they’ve accomplished. This is not a theater piece: It’s competitive sport. There must be some measure to separate the four teams chosen to participate, because they do not play equivalent schedules. But the relative beauty of the most recent performance is a specious gauge.
“To be honest, we just want to get in there and get a chance,” Buckeyes wideout K.J. Hill told Sporting News. “We’ve got a watch party at 12 tomorrow, we’re going to watch it, have fun with it, enjoy the moment and then get to work.”
This was the 13th victory of the season for Ohio State. There have been no defeats. Its perfect record includes five wins over teams that were included in the top 20 of last week’s penultimate Playoff rankings. The average margin in those games: 25.2 points. No team all season finished within 10 points of the Buckeyes.
By comparison, LSU’s 13-0 record includes four opponents ranked last week, and the average margin in those games was 12.3. Both Auburn and Alabama came within a touchdown of defeating the Tigers. You can judge for yourself whether LSU’s final statement against Georgia ought to swing that entire conversation.
Or you can listen to Buckeyes coach Ryan Day, who said soon after accepting the Big Ten Championship trophy, “I don’t know who’s got a better resume in the entire country than we have, the way we’ve played. … When you look at all three phases, I think we deserve to be No. 1.”
Indeed, this wasn’t an exceptional performance from the Buckeyes. But they did roll for 260 yards in the second half. And star running back J.K. Dobbins did rush for 172 yards and a touchdown. And quarterback Justin Field did finish one passing yard short of the 300 mark while throwing three touchdowns. And wideout K.J. Hill did catch seven balls for 83 yards and become, in the process, the leading receiver in Ohio State history (ahead of Terry Glenn, Cris Carter, David Boston and Santonio Holmes). And receiver Austin Mack and tight end Jeremy Ruckert did deliver ridiculously spectacular one-handed catches, with the second of those resulting in a touchdown.
Maybe this wasn’t such a poor display, really.
“We knew we were beating ourselves. We just came in here and just talked to each other,” receiver Chris Olave said in the winning locker room. “There were no high voices. We just knew we had to gain that momentum back and win the game.”
The last time these two teams played a game, it wasn’t a game — not really. The Buckeyes back in October put 10 points on the board before Wisconsin’s offense managed a breath. After the Badgers scored their only touchdown, they were annihilated with scores in each of the next four Buckeyes possessions.
The Badgers generated fewer than 200 total yards in that game. They converted only nine first downs. Even without a wildly successful passing game, the Buckeyes put up 431 yards. They looked, to put it succinctly, like the best team in college football.
For that afternoon, they probably were. As they were a week ago, when Michigan was stampeded by the Buckeyes for just short of 60 points. In this first half of this one, they weren’t close to the best team on the field.
The defense leading the nation with averages of 3.73 yards allowed per play and 232.3 yards per game surrendered 294 yards in the first 30 minutes, including 75 yards in just 32 seconds on the final Badgers possession of the half.
“I think we might have been just over-excited about the game, maybe, or just let the little things get off schedule, like false-start penalties,” Ruckert told SN. “I think the biggest thing was to take a deep breath, press pause and just get back out there and do what we’re best at.”
Fields began to turn around the game with a 50-yard pass after scrambling to the left to escape the rush, and that led to Ruckert’s touchdown. Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti simply dropped the football as he prepared to return it to the Buckeyes following a failed Badgers series; he was tackled at his own 16, and that set up a Blake Haubell field goal for OSU.
After Zach Hintze missed a 48-yard field goal for Wisconsin, the Buckeyes countered with a 69-yard drive that ended with Hill’s first touchdown on a sizzling throw over the middle from Fields. They had control of the game and of course were not going to relinquish it.
They understand they have no control of their destination in the Playoff. It could be Arizona, likely to play ACC champion Clemson. It could be to Atlanta for a game against Oklahoma. Whichever direction they head, it ought to be determined by their play over the course of 13 games starting in August — not merely a few hours on Saturday night.
“I think we’re No. 1, point-blank, period,” All-American defensive end Chase Young told reporters. To see us come back and not just come back — but we came back and we dominated. I feel like a team that can flip a switch like that is, you know, a No. 1-worthy team.”