The Ohio State football team found out it was playoff-bound when the final College Football Playoff rankings were announced Sunday afternoon, but the Buckeyes wouldn’t have earned that spot without their drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game a day earlier.
OSU (12-1, 8-0) topped the Badgers, 59-0, locking up its 35th Big Ten title. With a new quarterback in the lineup and having recently learned of the death of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, the Buckeyes’ dominating performance came as a surprise to many.
But surprise or not, The Lantern sports editors picked five key takeaways from the win that booked OSU’s ticket to the playoffs.
1. Redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones didn’t miss a step
Jones — starting in place of injured redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — completed an eight-yard pass to redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas on the first play of the game. Then five plays later, he heaved the ball downfield and found the hands of senior wide receiver Devin Smith for a 39-yard touchdown.
Less than two minutes is all it took for Jones to show everyone at Lucas Oil Stadium — and anyone watching on TV — that he did, in fact, go to Indianapolis to play football.
Throughout the game, the Glenville High School product showed off his world-class arm strength and surprisingly reliable accuracy and decision-making skills on his way to MVP honors.
Jones totaled 257 yards and three touchdowns as he completed 12 of 17 pass attempts in the game without turning the ball over. Anyone who predicted those numbers likely also predicated on OSU win, but with almost nothing to go off of, not many could have expected Jones to have the success he did.
It was a near flawless performance, and had he struggled, a win alone might not have been enough to get the Buckeyes to the playoffs.
2. Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett might be the Buckeyes’ most important player
Before Saturday, the argument could have been made that Barrett had been the main key to OSU’s success. But with the way Jones performed, a quick look to the defensive line shows who the Buckeyes’ true leader from a physical and emotional standpoint is.
Bennett donned No. 53 in honor of Karageorge, and played with a chip on his shoulder from start to finish. He tallied a career-high four tackles for loss to go along with two sacks, and forced a fumble that was recovered and returned for a touchdown by sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa.
Bennett had made mid-game speeches to spark the Buckeyes more than once this season, but it was clear that his play on the field — and leadership on the sidelines — helped key OSU to arguably its most important win since the 2002 National Championship Game.
3. Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott simply outplayed Wisconsin’s Heisman candidate
Wisconsin redshirt-junior running back Melvin Gordon is likely going to be a Heisman Trophy finalist as the nation’s top rusher, but on Saturday he wasn’t even the best player at his position on the field.
OSU’s Elliott broke Gordon’s own Big Ten title game record with 220 rushing yards, and he did it on just 20 carries. Gordon managed just 76 yards on his 26 attempts and couldn’t help the Badgers put points on the board, while Elliott scored 12 points on his own.
Through 13 games, Elliott has tallied 1,402 rushing yards on 217 carries with 12 touchdowns while adding 26 receptions for another 208 yards through the air.
Elliott’s play of late has drawn comparisons to former Buckeye Carlos Hyde, and if he keeps improving, he could easily end up having an even better collegiate career.
4. The Buckeye defense answered the Bell and then some
Sophomore safety Vonn Bell, along with the rest of the Buckeye defense, lived up to their “Silver Bullet” mantra Saturday night.
Bell, who tied for the team lead in tackles against Wisconsin with seven, recorded his fifth interception for the season late in the first quarter to set the tone for the Buckeye defense.
The Buckeyes not only held Wisconsin redshirt-junior quarterback Joel Stave to 187 yards passing on 17 of 43 through the air, but they also shut down potential Heisman finalist Gordon all night long.
For an OSU defense to perform like they did on the biggest stage in the Big Ten conference showed that the Buckeyes are…
5. Deserving of the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff
The Buckeyes leapfrogged Texas Christian to get into the inaugural College Football Playoff and they deserve it.
OSU put up a 59 spot on the second-best defense in the country and held the nation’s leading rusher to a 2.9 yards per carry average.
The Horned Frogs did indeed dominate the Iowa State Cyclones, but it doesn’t help that the Cyclones entered that game 2-9 on the season.
It also hurt the Big 12 in that they no longer have a conference championship game. Do not be surprised if the Big 12 isn’t actively looking for two new members before the start of next season.
The Buckeyes put on a clinic in the conference title game and will now get a shot at the No. 1 team in the country in Alabama.
Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer is must-see TV and you can bet all eyes will be on the Superdome on Jan. 1 for the Sugar Bowl. Kickoff in New Orleans is set for 8:30 p.m.