MADISON, Wis. - An old adage says football is a game of inches. The Wisconsin Badgers found that out first hand Saturday afternoon in Camp Randall Stadium, when too many inches here or there fell beyond their grasp in a 21-14 overtime loss to Ohio State.
It was the second overtime loss at home in as many games for the Badgers, who fell to 7-4 (4-3 Big Ten) with the loss. Ohio State maintained its perfect record and moved to 11-0 (7-0 Big Ten) in head coach Urban Meyer's first season at the helm, although the Buckeyes are banned from participating in the postseason this year.
The Buckeyes also clinched their first Leaders Division title, but the Badgers will still represent the division in the Big Ten Championship Game in early December. Even still, their eventual trip to Indianapolis was no comfort to the Badgers, who battled back to force overtime on a 5-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Curt Phillips to tight end Jacob Pedersen.
Ohio State scored early into the overtime period on a 2-yard rush from running back Carlos Hyde, putting them up 21-14, and the Badgers weren't able to carry over their late-game momentum into the extra period. The Badgers went three-and-out in overtime, after the Buckeyes broke up Phillips' fourth down pass to Pedersen.
"It was really difficult to swallow, but I think this is an opportunity to grow as coaches and as young men," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said after the game.
It was the first time in Bielema's career that the Badgers lost on senior day, and the seventh-year head coach was visibly emotional in his post game press conference.
"It's tough," Bielema said, choking back tears at the podium. "The seniors mean the world to me."
The Badgers rushed for a total of 206 yards on the ground, but it wasn't enough to keep their hopes of a second-straight Leaders Division championship alive. Senior running back Montee Ball tied the NCAA's all-time touchdown record in the second quarter with his 78th career score, and the senior running back finished the game with 197 rushing yards.
But Ball and the Badgers fell inches short of breaking the record and tying up the game with three minutes left in regulation, as Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier punched the ball out of Ball's hands near the goal line and safety Christian Bryant scooped it up to give Ohio State their only forced turnover of the game.
Phillips finished his first home start by completing 14-of-25 passes for 154 yards, but the Badgers weren't able to move the ball well enough to overcome Ohio State's tough rushing defense.
The Badgers missed a litany of opportunities during the game to put themselves in the driver's seat, including getting just seven points out of five drives that extended into Ohio State territory before Phillips' late touchdown pass. The Badgers said they failed to execute, above all else.
"It was one play here, one play there. It could have been multiple things that would have changed the game," junior guard Ryan Groy said. "But we've just got to look back and see what we could have improved on, and improve on all those little things."
Luckily for the Badgers, whatever problems they had on offense didn't extend to the defensive side of the ball during regulation. The Badgers held the Buckeyes to just seven offensive points during the game, and limited Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to just 97 passing yards and 48 net rushing yards in the game. The Buckeyes struck when wide receiver Corey Brown returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown, but the Badgers said they could have done more to hold the Buckeyes in check.
"It's definitely a huge confidence-builder, but at the same time, it's not enough," junior safety Dezmen Southward said after the game. "Any time you come into a game, you want to win, and if you don't leave that game with a win, then you need to do more. We need to get our offense the ball more. We need to hold them to a field goal in overtime. So there's always something else we can do."
The Badgers will travel to State College, Penn., next week to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions in their regular season finale. Penn State is also ineligible for the postseason, but the Badgers would be able to tie the Nittany Lions for second place in the Leaders Division with a win. The Badgers might have missed out on an inch here or there against the Buckeyes, but Bielema said his team will come out stronger on the other side.
"It's tough to go through it," Bielema said. "For whatever reason we're having to learn some lessons that are really, really difficult to swallow but will make us better.
"Sometimes you need to go through the lowest of lows to get to the highest of highs."