INDIANAPOLIS — So many times in football, it helps to be realistic. Even if a team’s defense plays well, it still might give up a considerable amount of yards. Even if the defense can stop an opposing offense from scoring over two quarters, it’s tremendously more difficult to hold them scoreless for the entire game.
It’s safe to say those concessions would have been accepted had the Ohio State Buckeyes managed to beat the Wisconsin Badgers and their Heisman candidate running back, redshirt-junior Melvin Gordon.
But on Saturday night in Indianapolis, the Buckeye defense didn’t settle for good enough.
The Buckeyes not only held Gordon to only 76 yards, but they shut out the Badgers completely, as they dominated their opponents, 59-0, in the Big Ten Championship Game.
“It’s still crazy to me,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said after the game. “I think if you told us this week that we would shut them out, 59-0, I wouldn’t have been believed you. But seeing the guys before the game, and what was going on in the locker room and how just hyped up everybody was, and how everyone bought into what we were saying — (I) maybe thought they’d get seven points, but a shutout’s a big deal against this offense.”
It was an offense that entered the title game ranked third in the nation in rushing offense and, in Gordon, had the player with more yards on the ground than any other individual in college football.
But from the beginning, the Buckeye defensive corps stood tall. Wisconsin punted on its first two drives, before redshirt-junior quarterback Joel Stave was intercepted by sophomore safety Vonn Bell the next time it had the ball.
The evening didn’t get any better for Gordon and the Badgers. In the second quarter, the team from Madison, Wis., gained only 14 total offensive yards and punted an additional three times. By that point the Buckeyes were already up 31-0, but they put the exclamation point on the half on Wisconsin’s next drive.
Gordon attempted a run on second-and-18 from his own 12-yard line, but Bennett forced him to fumble the football, and sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa grabbed the ball and went into the end zone for the score.
Bosa said after the game that Bennett’s leadership has been a key component for the defense’s success.
“(It’s) just the way he works and his attitude. He just bottles all of his anger and comes out and just let’s it go in the football game and he’s so talented,” Bosa said. “He’s finally showing what he really can do.”
In addition to his football skills, Bennett showed off a new number, 53, in honor of teammate Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead last Sunday after having been missing for five days. The decision to change numbers was one Bennett said he made quickly.
“As soon as I heard the news about Kosta I went to (defensive line) coach (Larry) Johnson and asked him if I could wear it,” he said. “I was only around Kosta for about four months but the guy meant a lot to me. I respected him, I looked up to him. Maybe he gave me strength, because I’ve never played like that before. I think he gave the guys strength and we were able to rally around together because we realized how special it is to do what we do with each other.”
Bennett finished with four tackles for loss — a career high — which included two sacks.
The OSU co-captain is a part of a senior class who had yet to win a conference title going into the game, and redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee said the rest of the team felt they needed to get the victory for their veteran teammates.
“They (the seniors) had a bad taste in their mouth from last time they were on this field and it sucked for me to watch,” Lee, who led the Buckeyes in total and solo tackles, said. “What a difference a year can make. We’re a much closer team, much stronger team. I’m glad for them, I’m happy for them and I’d do anything for them. It’s just great to get a win.”
Meanwhile, the win had some special meaning for Joshua Perry. The junior linebacker, who finished with five tackles of his own, graduated from Olentangy High School, and he said his Buckeye roots added another level to the postgame celebration.
“It’s awesome. It’s a little bit special for me ‘cause I’m a Central Ohio kid, so growing up in Central Ohio, all I ever wanted to do was win a Big Ten Championship,” he said. “I wanted to be up on the stage, I wanted to do the whole thing, I wanted to run up to my mom and dad while they were in the stands and give them a big hug. Just being able to do that, holding up the Big Ten sign and everything, was awesome.”
As the OSU offense, led by redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones, continued to light up the scoreboard, the defense continued to keep Wisconsin out of the end zone. Senior cornerback Doran Grant picked off two passes, and the team managed to keep the Badgers from scoring altogether.
Gordon’s sub 100-yard effort was his first since Sept. 6, and OSU coach Urban Meyer was at a loss for words when asked how his defense managed to contain the explosive running back.
“I don’t know, it wasn’t easy. (Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers) coach (Luke) Fickell and our defense really stepped up,” he said. “That is a first round draft pick we were playing against. I can’t wait to watch that film because that was just phenomenal.”
Lee said the players simply did their individual jobs to stop Gordon, and Perry said preparation also played a key role.
“This is the stuff that we train for when we talk about offseason training and the whole deal. We trained for this moment, we trained to be back here, to be in a tough game against a tough team and then just be able to go out there and play our best.”
The Buckeyes will see if their best is enough for a place in the inaugural College Football Playoff when the committee selects the four teams Sunday at 12:30 p.m.