After falling short of its goal last season, the Ohio State football team earned a second chance in 2014.
The Buckeyes — ranked No. 5 in the College Football Playoff standings — are set to match up with No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday, one day short of a year since they lost to Michigan State in the title game last season.
In order to reverse that 34-24 result, senior cornerback Doran Grant said OSU has to work harder than ever before heading into Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend.
“Just more effort. More effort, more focus, more everything,” Grant said Wednesday. “It’s championship week, everything has to be more, and we’ve gotta execute and compete.”
If OSU pulls out a win against the Badgers, it will mean the 35th Big Ten championship in program history, but first since 2009. That four-year gap means the current Buckeye seniors don’t have a conference title on their resume.
Grant said his class’ legacy “wouldn’t be too complete” if the Buckeyes lose on Saturday.
“That’s something — especially the guys I came in with, the class of 2011 — we never won one since we’ve been here,” he said. “And we gotta get it.”
In order to make their resumes application-ready, the Buckeyes will have to slow down an offense averaging 482.1 yards per game and take on a defense giving up just 16.8 points per contest. OSU will also have to do all that without its starting quarterback as redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett is set to miss the remainder of the season after fracturing his ankle in a win over Michigan last weekend.
Before his injury, Barrett had set the Big Ten record for total touchdowns in a season to go along with numerous program records. With the Wichita Falls, Texas, native coming off a Sunday surgery, the Buckeyes are set to turn to redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones, who has thrown all of 17 passes this season.
With Jones at the helm, that means OSU is set to play arguably its biggest game of the season with a player who’s thrown just two career touchdowns passes, while Barrett threw 34 in just 12 games as the starter.
But even with his starter out, coach Urban Meyer said he’s comfortable with the Buckeyes’ quarterback situation.
“(I feel) great,” Meyer said Wednesday. “After today, (Jones) had a good day today.”
Meyer stressed that — while the quarterback matters — an offense’s success is based more off the group than any individual player.
“A good quarterback has a common denominator and that’s good players around him,” he said. “And we have a veteran offensive line and some good players around him.”
Jones taking the lead won’t be the only change for the Buckeyes, as the team learned of the death of a teammate barely 24 hours after beating the Wolverines.
Redshirt-senior defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge — a former wrestler turned football walk-on who had been with the team since August — was reported missing last Wednesday before his body was discovered on Sunday. Karageorge’s funeral was held Wednesday before the Buckeyes practiced.
Grant said he attended the funeral, and added it’s not necessarily possible to move on from the tragedy, but the team has to play through it.
“You don’t really get past it, we just gotta keep fighting,” he said. “Just keep fighting and staying together.”
Senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said the adversity of the past week has made the team closer, and forced the leaders to step up.
“I think it’s kinda all brought us together, and kinda all just put our shields up and ‘let’s go,’” Heuerman said Wednesday. “We’ll go wherever.”
With Barrett’s injury in mind, Heuerman added that the offensive leadership has to be even stronger with Jones making his first collegiate start.
“Especially on offense with a quarterback who doesn’t have a whole lot of experience back there playing,” he said. “I think the older guys on offense — myself, (senior wide receiver Evan Spencer), (senior wide receiver Devin Smith), (junior offensive lineman) Taylor Decker on the line — a lot of that, it’s really been on our shoulders. Step up our game, bring (Jones) up.”
With the spotlight in Columbus focused largely on how Jones will perform, the Buckeyes might need to put even more emphasis on trying to stop the Wisconsin offensive attack. And when it comes to the Badgers’ attack, everything goes through the success of redshirt-junior running back Melvin Gordon.
Gordon — who was named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year on Tuesday — leads the nation with 2,260 rushing yards on just 283 carries, and has scored 26 touchdowns along the way. Those rushing yards mean Gordon alone would be the 45th best running team in the country.
As a team, the Badgers are second in the nation with 4,011 yards on the ground this season.
Especially in recent weeks, OSU has struggled against the run, giving up more than 100 rushing yards to a single player in three of its past four games.
In order to slow down Gordon and the Wisconsin offense, Grant said he has a simple plan.
“Pursue him and get him on the ground,” he said.
While that might be easier said than done, Grant said the Buckeyes simply don’t have another option.
“That’s what we have to do,” he added.
Even though Gordon is the focal point, the Badgers have proven successful throwing the ball as well, especially in recent weeks. Redshirt-junior quarterback Joel Stave completed 11 of 14 passes Nov. 22 against Iowa before throwing for 215 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota on Saturday.
Grant said Stave’s play in recent weeks shows the Buckeyes have to be ready for all aspects of the Wisconsin attack.
“That means we have to be ready for the pass, they’re not just one-dimensional running the ball,” Grant said. “So we have to cover, and we have to be ready to stop the run.”
Grant added that the Badgers like to change it up on offense, meaning the Buckeyes have to work as a team even more than normal.
“They shift a lot, they motion a lot,” he said. “We have to communicate and be in the right spots so we can fill our gaps in the run game.”
And with that focus on the running game, the Buckeyes will also have to be aware of the play action pass.
“You have to stay focused every play though, because you never know when they’re gonna throw that,” Grant said.
While the Badgers throw multiple looks at the opposition while on offense, Heuerman said the defense is much more vanilla. But he added that doesn’t mean Wisconsin will be easy to move the ball against, even if the Buckeyes know what’s coming.
“They don’t really do a whole lot of different things, they’re just really good at what they do,” Heuerman said. “They play just a few different types of defense, which, you know, isn’t tough to figure out what they’re playing. But they’re gap sound and they got a lot of good players on that team (who) have a knack for the football.”
As the Buckeyes prepare for Wisconsin, Heuerman said they’ve completed one of their main goals: competing for championships in November.
But he added OSU has made it to this point on a path that it might not have expected.
“I don’t think anyone thought this was how we would get here, in all the things we’ve encountered along the way, it’s been a wild ride,” Heuerman said. “But we’re there and we’re doing everything we can to prepare.”
With the loss to Michigan State still on his mind, Heuerman said the Buckeyes will come in with a different attitude against the Badgers.
“We’ve still got that bad taste in our mouth from last year, in that stadium,” he said. “We haven’t been back since, so we’re coming in with a chip on our shoulder.”
The Buckeyes and the Badgers are scheduled to kick off at 8:17 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.