Badgers' loss takes some of sizzle out of showdown

Rob Oller
Illinois kicker James McCourt, left, kicks the game winning field goal as time expired in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin on Saturday in Champaign, Ill. Illinois won 24-21. [Holly Hart/The Associated Press]

The Ohio State narrative as of noon on Saturday: The Buckeyes look unstoppable through the first seven games, but we won’t know until next week, when Wisconsin visits the Horseshoe, whether they are just really good or on their way to becoming generationally great.

The narrative as of 2 p.m.: Hmm, Illinois is hanging in there against the Badgers.

The narrative as of 3:15 p.m.: This can’t be happening.

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3:25 p.m.: Lovie Smith’s terminally ill job security is about to go into remission for what seems like the 27th time.

3:35 p.m.: Been there (Iowa in 2017), done that (Purdue in 2018).

Wisconsin entered Saturday’s game at Illinois 6-0 and ranked No. 1 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense, with four shutouts. The No. 6 Badgers had not trailed at any point this season. Then they go out and pull a 2017 and 2018 Ohio State, losing to 2-4 Illinois 24-23 on a last-second, 39-yard field goal the week before playing the Buckeyes.

College football, man.

I don’t know about you, but I’m bummed. Saturday’s game against the Badgers was supposed to be the first 100% genuine tell-all moment of the season. After pulling the string on Ryan Day’s back all season and hearing him say the same thing about OSU’s schedule getting tougher each week, I was looking forward to Buckeyes vs. Badgers actually fulfilling that coach-speak prophecy.

Then the Illini happened to Bucky Badger and the air left the OSU-UW balloon faster than you can say Black Santa. Smith, his Old Saint Nick silvery beard gleaming in the Memorial Stadium sunlight, delivered a gift to himself and to Illinois by notching the biggest win of his career and the biggest upset of the college football season.

The fallout hits Wisconsin hardest, of course, but as an Ohio State fan you can’t be happy. Or maybe you can, if you were worried the Buckeyes would lose to the Badgers. I didn’t. In fact, I don’t see OSU losing until … 2020. (I’m not yet ready to say when in 2020; could be January. Could be September. Or maybe October.)

I have Ohio State not only making the College Football Playoff but also winning the semifinal game on Dec. 28 and playing — Alabama? Clemson? Oklahoma? — in the national championship on Jan. 13.

I feel pretty secure in that prediction, but it would have been nice to gather more persuasive intel on Saturday against Wisconsin. Sigh. Maybe the Badgers remain the real deal. After all, Ohio State rebounded from 31- and 29-point losses to Iowa and Purdue the past two seasons by winning their next games.

But losing to Illinois, which had not defeated a ranked team since 2011, shows that the Badgers are not in the Buckeyes’ league, i.e. legitimate national title contenders. It is one thing to lose a game to a lesser opponent, quite another to crumble late in the game — Wisconsin led Illinois by nine points with 9:46 remaining — to a program that had not knocked off a ranked Big Ten team since the Illini shocked No. 1 Ohio State in November 2007.

The good news for the Badgers? Ohio State went on to play in the BCS national championship game that season. The bad? Wisconsin needs to upset the No. 4 Buckeyes to keep alive any shot of contending for a national title.

I don’t see any narrative where that happens, but I would have seen it even more clearly if the Badgers had taken care of business against Illinois.

Saturday in the Shoe remains a big game. But the hype no longer feels huge.