Since losing in last year's Big Ten championship game, Ohio State has wanted to return to Indianapolis in the worst way. The Buckeyes have achieved that, and, unfortunately, in the worst way. Never could they have imagined the circumstances they now must overcome to defeat Wisconsin on Saturday night and stay in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.

Since losing in last year's Big Ten championship game, Ohio State has wanted to return to Indianapolis in the worst way.

The Buckeyes have achieved that, and, unfortunately, in the worst way. Never could they have imagined the circumstances they now must overcome to defeat Wisconsin on Saturday night and stay in the hunt for the College Football Playoff.

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A season that began with the loss of quarterback Braxton Miller ended with the fractured ankle of J.T. Barrett in the regular-season finale against Michigan. Now, the Buckeyes are dealing with something that dwarfs any football injury - the death, apparently by suicide, of walk-on defensive tackle Kosta Karageorge.

The shock and grief could render football so unimportant that a team might be incapable of playing with the necessary focus and execution, or it could serve as inspiration to play with an even higher purpose and clarity.

The Buckeyes (11-1, 8-0) believe it will be the latter.

"It kind of hits you and it makes you take a step back and see there's life outside of this place and outside of football," sophomore right guard Pat Elflein said. "It makes me think of Kosta and, 'What would he want?'

Players described Karageorge as a player with almost unique enthusiasm, even though he never appeared in a game. They said he would yell, "Yeah, baby!" at the start of practice to get his teammates fired up. Karageorge would routinely stay after practice or spend extra time in the weight room, despite his lack of playing time.

"He wouldn't want us to go downhill from this," Elflein said. "Kosta wants us to win this game and get Kosta a ring. He's put in the work to deserve that. He wants a championship. So we're going to get it."

One player after another said that this Ohio State team is the closest they have been on, and that Karageorge was an integral part of that.

"What he put into everything is kind of like the model of what we want - of effort and toughness and being passionate and loyal," Elflein said. "That's who he was, and that's what everybody tries to be."

Now the Buckeyes must regroup and play peaking Wisconsin (10-2, 7-1), which has won seven straight games. And, oh yeah, do it with a quarterback, redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones, making his first career start.

While Miller was rehabilitating from his first shoulder injury, Jones played with the starters throughout spring practice and most of training camp. Barrett then surpassed him on the depth chart.

Offensive coordinator Tom Herman said that was strictly because the offense clicked better with Barrett, not because of any deficiency with Jones.

Most teams would be panicky at the thought of a third-string quarterback starting in a game of this magnitude. The Buckeyes seem nonplussed.

"Is he ready to go beat Wisconsin today? No," Herman said, "but he's certainly ready for the moment, and he'll be ready when it comes to the game plan and winning the game on Saturday."

Jones has a stronger arm than Barrett. At 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds with deceptive speed, he can be a beast in the run game.

"He's really everything you need in a quarterback," receiver Evan Spencer said.

This offseason, Urban Meyer put his players through an intense leadership seminar trained to teach them how to overcome adversity. Not even he could have anticipated this kind of adversity.

"Every red flag is up," Meyer said. "You have some really good built-in excuses. To overcome the incredible tragedy that happened (to Karageorge), this is a real challenge.

"We're going to watch it very closely. I can tell you this is an extremely close team that does a lot of things together and cares about each other."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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