COLUMBUS, Ohio — With its perfect record hanging in the balance, Ohio State finally decided to play like a No. 1 team.
The Buckeyes' defense stiffened and Chris Wells ran for three second-half scores to help Ohio State overcome a third-quarter deficit and beat Wisconsin 38-17 on Saturday.
There were more than a few jittery moments in the second half, however.
"The season was on the line," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said of the mood on the sideline when the Buckeyes trailed by a touchdown late in the third quarter. "We've already had a one-loss season, last year. We don't want another one. We just kind of looked at each other and said, 'Hey, we don't want to feel like we did last year. We want to win them all if we're going to be remembered around here as a special team."'
The Buckeyes were No. 1 all last season until they were pounded 41-14 by No. 2 Florida in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Glendale, Ariz.
Just like last year, the Buckeyes are off to a 10-0 start (6-0 in the Big Ten). They ended Wisconsin's three-game winning streak at Ohio Stadium, dating to 1999. The victory was also Ohio State's 20th consecutive Big Ten win, eclipsing the mark it shared with Michigan (1990-92).
Wells, who finished with 169 yards on 21 carries, capped a methodical 80-yard drive by cutting back to his left on a run up the middle for a 31-yard score to tie the game 17-17 late in the third quarter.
"There was no panic on our part," Wells said.
After a punt by Wisconsin (7-3, 3-3) gave the ball back near midfield, Wells did it again on an almost identical run. Slashing up the middle, he cut back to his left and was untouched, again, as he raced 30 yards to the left corner of the end zone for a 24-17 lead.
Then the Badgers imploded. Down by a touchdown with more than 12 minutes left, a miscommunication led to their second fake punt of the game. Punter Ken DeBauche, who completed a pass for 31 yards and a first down to set up a field goal in the first quarter, lost 2 yards when tackled by All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis on fourth-and-3 at the Wisconsin 27.
"My job is to kind of dump people as they come up," said Laurinaitis, who had 19 tackles. "I saw him take off and knew it was a short-yardage kind of situation and I tried to be aggressive and get him down."
Coach Bret Bielema said everybody in the Wisconsin huddle thought it was a punt except DeBauche.
"I didn't get a signal that it was on or off," he said. "So I thought it was still on."
Bielema said the play was pivotal.
"It didn't end the game right there, but it put a big damper on the spirits on our sidelines and gave them momentum," Bielema said.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who has said a punt is the most important play in football, agreed the mistake on the punt was pivotal.
"I don't know for sure if that was a fake," Tressel said. "If it was, it didn't work. That sure helped."
Four plays later Buckeyes wide-out Brian Robiskie reached back with his right arm to make a one-handed grab of a 7-yard scoring pass from Todd Boeckman. Robiskie had opened the scoring on a 30-yard TD reception from Boeckman.
Wisconsin also fumbled inside its own 25 twice in the fourth quarter. After the second fumble, Wells tiptoed around left end, avoided a tackle at the 18 and cruised in for a 23-yard touchdown.
Ohio State's defense totaled 10 sacks and 13 tackles for negative yardage. Tackle Vernon Gholston tied a school record with four sacks for the Buckeyes, who limited the Badgers to 12 yards rushing on 37 attempts.
Down 10-3 at the half, Wisconsin muffled a crowd of 105,449 by scoring on its first two possessions of the third quarter.
Tyler Donovan, who ended up 17-of-29 for 238 yards and two touchdowns, completed a 50-yard pass to Paul Hubbard. On second-and-25 at the Ohio State 28 he avoided a rush and hit Travis Beckum in the end zone.
Ohio State gained only 2 yards on its next possession, and Wisconsin came right back with a 62-yard drive which ended on Donovan's 2-yard pass to Chris Pressley for a 17-10 lead.
The second half, however, was a different story.
Wisconsin won 42-17 in 1999, 20-17 in 2001 and 18-15 in 2004, each time coming back from a double-digit deficit to win in Columbus. Not this time.
"After a game like today, you've just got to thank whoever made (football) 60 minutes," Ohio State fullback Dionte Johnson said.