INDIANAPOLIS — “Defense wins championships” is the most overused phrase in sports. It will be used one million times or more in the coming weeks as four teams prepare for a shot at a national title.
Saturday, the phrase was gospel.
No. 8 Ohio State made two momentous defensive stops in the final five minutes against No. 4 Wisconsin to win its first Big Ten title since 2014, and more importantly for the Buckeyes, they have a realistic shot at earning the final spot in the College Football Playoff just vacated by the Badgers.
“Their preparation this week, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a college football team prepare the way these kids did,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “I think that gave them great confidence to go execute.”
Ohio State elected to kick a field goal on a fourth-and-1 with 5:20 remaining, which extended the lead to 27-21. That’s a spot where head coach Urban Meyer is notorious for rolling the dice and winning a football game by winning that 1 yard. He said after the game that it was his decision to kick the field goal and go against his traditional action of attempting the conversion.
The truth was that the defense was playing too well not to have faith that it could get a stop. It did. And after another three-and-out by the Ohio State offense, the defense made the game-ending stop.
Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrooke threw his second interception of the game on fourth-and-20 to Damon Webb with less than two minutes left in the game.
“I just thought our defense was playing so good,” Meyer said. Let’s let that quarterback and let our defensive line do what they do best and get after that quarterback. But that was one of the toughest calls of the day.”
Hornibrooke’s has the worst touchdown to interception ratio of any Power 5 conference quarterback at 21 to 15. But he wasn’t what concerned Ohio State’s defense. Big Ten freshman of the year Jonathan Taylor, who averaged more than 150 rushing yards per game entering the contest, was the main focus on defense.
In response, the defensive line played one of its best games of the year by continually penetrating Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line and stopping Taylor before he got any momentum.
The running back had 15 carries for 41 yards, his lowest total in one game this season.
The defense answered any challenged thrown at them, most especially when the offense failed to put away Wisconsin.
Ohio State had four three-and-outs, two field goals and an interception in the second half. There was no touchdown to decisively split the Badgers from the playoff field and the ranks of the unbeaten. The defense had to do that.
“I think we were super confident the whole game,” sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa said. “I don’t think there was a moment we thought we were going to lose at all.”
Wisconsin could have been the team that was on the podium celebrating as the Buckeyes walked off the field without any detection and with their heads held low, for everyone’s eyes would be on the team with the shiny football and hardware hoisted in the air. Everyone in attendance would watch the players and coaches pack themselves onto a makeshift stage that looks like it should be in a town parade rather than on a football field.
Instead, Ohio State celebrated. A dominant offense at times that then went cold late couldn’t put the game on ice. To win the game, it had to be done on defense.
An opportunity was there for the Badgers. Ohio State left the door open after each missed chance to deliver a decisive blow, but the defense seized it when the Badgers couldn’t. That’s why Ohio State is the Big Ten champion.