INDIANAPOLIS — With a quarterback making his first collegiate start under center, the Ohio State football team shut out Wisconsin, 59-0, to lock up its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game victory.
At the 9:24 mark in the third quarter, redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones found senior wide receiver Devin Smith for a 42-yard touchdown. The play — which was the third scoring connection between the Buckeyes’ duo — extended OSU’s lead to 45-0 and cemented the win, keeping the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff hopes alive.
Jones was under center after redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was ruled out for the season after fracturing his ankle against Michigan last week. A day after Barrett’s injury, the Buckeyes also learned of the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge, who had been reported missing the previous Wednesday.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said the Buckeyes stayed together through the tumultuous week on their way to their blowout victory.
“People say that’s our third-string quarterback — well, he did pretty well,” Bennett said after the game. “The team rallied around him, they rallied around Kosta, and just came out and performed.”
“I played with confidence because of the confidence my teammates had in me, the confidence my coaches had in me, my family, close friends (and) Buckeye nation,” Jones said after the game.”
OSU (12-1, 8-0) topped the Badgers (10-3, 7-1) on Saturday night in Indianapolis after the Buckeyes fell to Michigan State, 34-24, in the conference title game in 2013.
The Buckeyes — ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff standings — locked up their 35th Big Ten title with the win over the No. 13 Badgers.
“It’s an honor to represent the Big Ten as the champion of the great conference,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said after the game. “Very proud of our team. Also, great respect for coach (Gary) Andersen and Wisconsin.”
The game marked the first shutout in the four-year history of the Big Ten Championship Game and the first time the Badgers had been shutout since a 34-0 loss to Syracuse in 1997.
Bennett said the Buckeyes’ ability to shutout the Badgers stemmed from the defense’s most complete performance of the season.
“This is the first time everybody did everything that was asked of them and did it as hard as they possibly could,” Bennett said. “This is a huge victory for us. A lot of respect for the offense we won against.”
Jones finished the game 12 of 17 on pass attempts for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game’s MVP. But even with his accolade, Jones said he enjoyed picking up the win as a group.
“It was very fun, going out there showing everybody what we can do when we all come together as one,” he said.
After the game, Barrett said Jones took his shot in stride and thrived in the spotlight.
“Definitely proud of him (Jones) and he’s able to … just take over the moment,” Barrett said after the game. “He seized the moment, seized the opportunity and he did it as a team. It wasn’t just him, that was the great thing about it, he had help around him. And that’s the great thing about this team.”
The Buckeyes held Wisconsin redshirt-junior running back and Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon to just 76 rushing yards on 26 carries. The last time Gordon was held without a touchdown was the Badgers’ 37-3 win over Western Illinois on Sept. 6.
OSU sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott broke Gordon’s Big Ten title game record of 216 rushing yards by tallying 220 yards on 20 carries.
Elliott said the attention Gordon had coming into the game helped him play with a chip on his shoulder.
“Just trying to come out there and make a name for myself,” Elliott said after the game. “I know it was a big stage, I knew everyone was going to be watching Melvin so I just wanted to come out and compete with him.”
An interception by senior cornerback Doran Grant late in the third quarter set the Buckeyes up in Wisconsin territory, but the drive stalled and a field goal try from freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger was blocked.
After a Wisconsin punt, the Buckeyes made it 52-0 after a 60-yard run by Elliott set up a 12-yard touchdown scamper by freshman running back Curtis Samuel.
Grant recorded another interception in the fourth quarter, and Samuel scored again on the ensuing drive for the final points of the game.
With Jones starting for the first time as a Buckeye, OSU needed less than two minutes to take a 7-0 lead. On just his third attempt of the game, Jones found Devin Smith for a 39-yard touchdown to cap a six-play, 77-yard drive.
After Wisconsin punted, the Badgers’ defense got a stop, but OSU sophomore punter Cameron Johnston’s kick traveled 73 yards to the Wisconsin two-yard line. The Badgers couldn’t move past their own 36 on the drive, kicking it back to OSU.
Elliott followed a 12-yard carry on the first play of the ensuing drive with an 81-yard touchdown run, putting the Buckeyes up, 14-0.
A 23-yard field goal by Nuernberger made it 17-0 after 15 minutes before OSU tacked on three more touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 38-0 lead into halftime.
Senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said it was difficult to sit in the locker room with such a big advantage, knowing they had to keep up the intensity in the second half.
“So credit to our coaching staff for keeping our minds right,” Heuerman said after the game. “(We have) a lot of leaders on this team and we knew there was still another half of football to play. And you know we put up 38 in the first half and they could’ve put up 38 in the second half, so we knew we had to come back out and keep pounding it down their throat, and we did.”
The Buckeyes outgained the Badgers 364-91 in the half as Jones completed 10 of his first 13 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. Elliott totaled 150 yards on 12 carries and tallied two touchdowns of his own in the opening 30 minutes.
OSU redshirt-junior wide receiver Corey Smith was ejected in the second quarter after being called for targeting. He’s the first OSU player to be ejected on a targeting call since former Buckeye Bradley Roby was kicked out of a game against Iowa in 2013. Corey Smith had two catches for 30 yards before he left the game.
After the game, Corey Smith said he thought the hit was legal, but added he won’t dwell on the call.
“The refs are gonna be the refs, I can’t overrule what they said,” he said. “I felt like it was shoulder-pad-to-shoulder-pad, I never led with my head.”
Gordon had just 43 rushing yards on 14 carries in the first half, and had a fumble returned for a touchdown by OSU sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa.
Bennett — normally No. 63 — wore No. 53 against the Badgers in honor of Karageorge. The Buckeyes also wore No. 53 stickers on their helmets and there was a moment of silence in Karageorge’s honor before the game.
Karageorge — an OSU wrestler turned football walk-on — was found dead last Sunday.
Meyer said the Buckeyes also had their own moment to honor Karageorge before taking the field.
“There’s a family grieving that was a big part of our family,” Meyer said. “Kosta, we had a prayer and a moment of silence for him in our locker room for him and his family. We’ll never forget our teammate.”
Bennett had two sacks and forced the fumble that led to Bosa’s touchdown.
Devin Smith totaled four receptions for Big Ten title-game record 137 yards and three touchdowns.
“I got into a zone last night just chilling in the hotel room just listening to music and I just felt it,” he said after the game. “It was a rush that come through my body. I just knew that I was ready.”
Stave finished the game 17 of 43 on pass attempts for 187 yards with three interceptions.
After checking in at No. 4 in the final College Football Playoff rankings, OSU is set to take on Alabama on New Years Day in the Sugar Bowl. Kickoff is set for 8:30 p.m. in New Orleans.