In the face of its largest deficit this season, one at a two-touchdown peak in the second half, for the first time first-year head coach Ryan Day had to guide Ohio State through a comeback with a Big Ten title and playoff assurances on the line.
No. 1 Ohio State (13-0, 10-0 Big Ten) finished climbing that mountain on two clutch catches by redshirt senior wide receiver K.J. Hill, scoring 27 unanswered points to overcome No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3, 7-3) 34-21 for its third-straight Big Ten championship.
“What a gritty win that we knew it was going to be like this, to beat a well-coached Wisconsin team twice in one year, both in the top 10 when we played them, that’s not easy to do,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. ”
Hill’s two receiving scores were part of a seven-catch, 83-yard effort that leaves him standing alone as the Buckeyes’ all-time career receptions leader.
Ohio State junior running back J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin junior running back Jonathan Taylor dueled with revolvers shot for 172 and 148 yards rushing, respectively. Taylor could only muster 13 in the second half, however.
“Wow, he ran hard,” Day said. “The offensive line, that’s a good defense, they kept swinging and swinging and swinging.”
The Badgers had momentum to open the second half, up 14 with Ohio State facing a third-and-7. Fields took a snap, scrambled left, and heaved a last-second prayer answered by junior wide receiver Chris Olave for a 50-yard gain.
Sophomore tight end Jeremy Ruckert snatched a 16-yard touchdown with one hand and the Buckeyes sliced the lead to 21-14, 13:21 to play third quarter.
It required a stark turnaround for Fields to find such a groove in the third quarter.
“I struggled a little bit in the first half, but I just knew to myself that I was a better player than what I was actually playing,” Fields said. “Just kind of going back to my roots, getting confidence back, getting a rhythm. I think that kind of helped me a lot in the second half.”
Meanwhile, the Buckeye defense started mounting pressure on Wisconsin’s offense.
A sack forced the Badgers three-and-out, with a botched snap on a punt creating a short field for the Ohio State offense.
The Buckeyes surrendered 30 yards in penalties on Wisconsin’s next drive, but stiffened to force a 48-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide left.
“It was definitely a momentum shift,” junior defensive end Chase Young said. “I think our offense, they just took that momentum and just ran with it. It just continued throughout the rest of the game.”
Fields and the offense were on the case to take advantage, grabbing a field goal on one drive then marching 69 yards for its first lead of the game. Hill hauled in the 16-yard score, making a pair of defenders miss en route to the key touchdown.
Ohio State led 24-21, less than a quarter after it trailed 21-7. And after another three-and-out, the offense had the ball back to start the fourth.
It drove 65 yards in nine plays, capped by a 13-yard secondary-route snag by Hill. The lead grew to 31-21 with 12:09 to play.
Another three-and-out, Ohio State drove 67 yards in 10 plays to pick up a field goal and leave the final score 34-21.
“It’s definitely a good game for the nation to see when we get tested, how we handle adversity,” Young said. “I feel like as you see today, we handle adversity pretty well.”
While the second half was a story of Ohio State dominance, the first told a contrasting tale.
The Badgers gashed the Buckeyes on their opening drive, moving 83 yards in five plays with one pass and one run each of over 25 yards.
Taylor took a handoff up the middle and dashed downhill for a 44-yard score that placed Wisconsin ahead 7-0 after just 2:03 of gametime.
A quarter later, Wisconsin marched 80 yards in 14 plays, converting one third-and-9, one third-and-8 and a fourth-and-4 before Wisconsin junior quarterback Jack Coan fooled the entire defense on a keeper and walked 14 yards into the endzone. The Badgers led 14-0 with 9:41 left in the first half.
Ohio State gained 91 first quarter yards on two drives but came away with no points.
On both possessions the Buckeyes moved the ball inside the Wisconsin 40-yard-line, but in both instances Fields took a costly sack that led to a turnover-on-downs and a punt, respectively.
The latter rendered a one-handed 34-yard diving reception by senior wide receiver Austin Mack almost meaningless.
“He didn’t get a chance to practice as much as he would have liked to this week,” Day said of Fields. “I think early on it was a combination of our protection and maybe him just being a little rusty, not getting the amount of reps, live reps that he needed during the week.”
With the Buckeyes now down two scores and facing fourth-and-9 at their own 26-yard-line, redshirt junior punter Drue Chrisman led the punt unit onto the field.
Chrisman took the snap, and rather than booting it back to the Badgers, he stood and flicked a pass to redshirt junior tight end Luke Farrell for 21 yards and a first down.
Ohio State drove to the Wisconsin 7-yard-line, but the fake was also rendered virtually meaningless after Fields turned the ball over via fumble.
On their final first-half possession, the Buckeyes finally drove down the field and converted, going 71 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown, capped by a 2-yard Dobbins dive.
Wisconsin dialed up a run play with 32 seconds left before halftime, likely meant to kill the clock, but Taylor shook two tackles and burst for 45 yards up the sideline. Junior wide receiver Quintez Cephus hauled in a 24-yard reception and Coan punched in a sneak to make the lead two touchdowns again, 21-7 at the intermission.
“We had a group of guys in that locker room who were barking at each other that they weren’t going to leave this place without a win,” Day said. “Then we all got together and said, ‘This is like life, it isn’t always going to work out the way you want it. The challenge was we were going to find out what was really made inside of us.'”
Ohio State now awaits word of its playoff seeding at noon Sunday.