Saturday, November 3, 2007

OSU stays #1 in throwback fashion

By Rick Morris

(NOTE: This is a report filed after attending today's Ohio State-Wisconsin game.)

On an afternoon at the Horseshoe in Columbus that saw the unlikelihoods stack on top of one another, higher and higher, it became difficult to determine which was the biggest of all.

Some might have cited Ohio State's defensive collapse early in the third quarter, that, combined with uneven offensive play in the first half, put the 16 1/2 point favorite and the nation's top-ranked team in their first real jeopardy of the season.

Some might have cited a Wisconsin team known for a bruising running game being able to establish the pass far more successfully on this afternoon -- and still winning the time of possession battle.

Some might have cited the spate of poor tackling that inexplicably befell the nation's top defense during the aforementioned critical stretch in the third quarter.

But the most insightful people would have cited the manner in which the Buckeyes mounted their successful and overwhelming comeback: a throwback to the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense of Woody Hayes that featured one of the school's greatest second-half rushing performances ever by sophomore running back Chris Wells.

Wells ran for 144 of his 169 yards and three touchdowns after halftime in a career-defining performance that led #1 Ohio State (10-0, 6-0 in the Big Ten) past Wisconsin, 38-17 (7-3, 3-3) before 105,449 delirious fans at Ohio Stadium. The victory was OSU's 20th in a row in the Big Ten, earning them the all-time conference record for consecutive wins.

It was a classic example of the game being much closer than the score would indicate, as the Buckeyes did not even come back to tie the game until the 2:41 mark of the third quarter, before adding three scores in the final stanza. Before that point, the game seemed destined to go all the way down to the wire.

Ohio State took the opening kickoff and stormed down the field with a seven-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in the first of two Brian Robiskie touchdown receptions on the day. Wisconsin answered with a surprisingly balanced 15-play, 77-yard drive for a field goal. The key play was a shocking fake punt, a 31-yard pass from Ken DeBauche to Paul Standring that provided enough momentum to ensure points on the board. From there, however, both defenses settled into a bend-but-don't-break mold and the only remaining points in the first half came on a 27-yard Ryan Pretorius field goal with six seconds remaining.

And then, amazingly, the Badgers came out firing with a big play offense in the second half that gave them touchdowns on their first two possessions to take a 17-10 lead and back the Buckeyes into their biggest corner of the season thus far. Wells then proceeded to run at and over the Wisconsin defense with equal ruthless efficiency during the course of four Buckeye touchdown drives the rest of the day. The extent to which the team imposed its will physically on Wisconsin was made more apparent by the fact that it did so despite losing the time of possession battle, 27:41-32:19. The Badgers sealed their doom with an unsuccessful, ill-advised and apparently unscripted second attempt at a fake punt from their own 27 trailing 24-17 in the early fourth quarter.

Wells was not alone in his dominance. On a day when the Buckeyes needed their biggest stars to play up to their potential, most did so and many posted career-best performances. Vernon Gholston became the third player in OSU history to record four sacks in a game and fellow defensive anchor James Laurinaitus recorded a career-high 19 tackles. The two Brians at wide receiver stood tall as well, as Robiskie's three-catch, 46-yard effort included two touchdown receptions and Hartline had a career-high seven catches for 95 yards, including a career-best 45-yard reception to set up the field goal before halftime. Quarterback Todd Boeckman was at least solid, with a 17-for-28, 166-yard, two-touchdown performance. Aside from the occasional multi-receiver spread, he ended up executing a very basic offense that only featured one screen pass to Brandon Saine, a seven-yard catch in the second quarter that resulted in a first down.

The Badgers' loss snuffed out any faint hopes of a BCS bowl bid and puts them firmly in the position of hoping for one of the Big Ten bowl slots on January 1. For Ohio State, a resurgent Illinois team awaits next week for the final home game, then the annual clash with archrival Michigan that could conceivably catapult them into the national championship game for a second straight season.

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