Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT): 11 down, one to go
MADISON, Wis. - This most imperfect of perfect seasons for Ohio State has been extended for one climactic game.
On a day when their offense disappeared for most of the game, the Buckeyes jolted awake just in time.
On a day when their defense played gamely, only to yield a tying touchdown with eight seconds left, the Buckeyes rose to the challenge when it was needed most.
Yet shortly after a 21-14 overtime victory over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium was sealed, the Buckeyes were already looking forward to the game against Michigan on Saturday that will define their season.
"This was a great game against a very good team that's been to the Rose Bowl a bunch," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "(But) this is not our rival. The next one is. So when you use that 'R-word,' we're talking about this week. We're going to dive into it as soon as we get back."
But the win over Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) did clinch the one tangible accomplishment the Buckeyes could achieve. Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) wrapped up the Leaders Division title, even though it's banned from the Big Ten championship game because of NCAA sanctions.
"The fact we're champions, I can't describe it," cornerback Bradley Roby said.
That the Buckeyes were pushed beyond 60 minutes made it even more special.
Ohio State led 14-0 after Corey Brown returned a punt 68 yards untouched to open the scoring and Carlos Hyde capped a 69-yard drive with a 15-yard touchdown run soon after in the second quarter.
The Buckeyes spent the rest of the game desperately trying to hang on. Wisconsin answered Ohio State's touchdown drive with one of its own on its next drive. Montee Ball tied the career record for major-college touchdowns with 78 on a 7-yard run.
After that, the game evolved - or devolved - into a stalemate, with the Buckeyes' offensive futility allowing field position to tilt toward the Badgers.
Quarterback Braxton Miller, who has bailed out Ohio State with his wondrous elusiveness all season, could not find openings against a Wisconsin defense that bracketed him with extra defenders. Miller ran for only 48 yards on 23 carries and threw for only 97 yards. Ohio State punted on its last seven possessions of regulation - excluding a knee-down at the end of the first half.
Wisconsin finally was on the verge of tying the score with less than three minutes left. But on fourth-and-a-foot from just outside the 1-yard line, linebacker Ryan Shazier knocked the ball loose from an airborne Ball and Christian Bryant recovered at the 6.
It looked to be the signature play for a defense that has found its identity late in the season. But the Buckeyes needed a first down to ice the game and couldn't do it.
Wisconsin took possession at the Ohio State 41 with 1:33 left and no timeouts. When John Simon sacked Curt Phillips for the fourth time on the first play, victory seemed within grasp.
But three straight completions got the Badgers a first down at the Buckeyes 20. Four plays later, Phillips threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Pedersen, who caught the ball with linebacker Zach Boren draped over him.
On to overtime.
"I can't tell you our emotion was high," Meyer said. "But we rallied them back. That's leadership on our team, and the coaches did a good job getting the guys going, because we were sucking our thumbs when they scored. Eight seconds left, no timeouts, the game is over (if we stop them).
"But I liked the way the offense just went in and attacked."
Hyde opened the overtime with a 11-yard gain on a sweep play the Buckeyes hadn't used all day. Miller finally found some room and ran twice for 12 yards to the 2 before Hyde ambled in for the score.
Then it was the defense's turn.
"I felt like if our offense scored in overtime, the defense would do its part and not let Wisconsin score," defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said.
After linebacker Etienne Sabino, back after four weeks out because of a broken leg, stuffed Ball for a 2-yard loss to force fourth-and-6, Phillips again threw to Pedersen.
But this time, safety Christian Bryant dived and knocked the ball away, sending the Buckeyes racing onto the field in jubilation.
As thrilled and relieved as they were to survive Wisconsin, they understand it's merely a prelude to Michigan.
"We can talk about it now," Meyer said. "We've kind of put a muzzle on it. They're going to get a ring. They're champions of their side. If you're going to keep score, you want to be a champion. Our guys did that.
"But we all understand that'll go on the shelf for a while for this one game."