Published Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 1:05 am
FOOTBALL
Barfknecht: Ohio State's form not that of a national title contender

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nice win for Ohio State on Saturday night, knocking off Wisconsin 31-24.

The Buckeyes hung on to their No. 4 national ranking, got injured quarterback Braxton Miller back in form with four touchdown passes and, more important, grabbed near-total control of the Big Ten Leaders Division.

With Penn State still ineligible for title play and Purdue, Indiana and Illinois struggling, OSU would have to lose twice for No. 23 Wisconsin to have a division title shot — and even then the Badgers would have to win out.

That's a lot of good news from one football game.

So why did it feel like Ohio State sung the school song afterward — in front of what was left of the school's third-largest crowd — at less than full throat?

I'd argue it was because this didn't turn into the truly special night the Buckeyes had planned.

This was set up to send a message to the other big boys that the Buckeyes are a true national championship contender. To wit:

Ľ ABC was in town, with Musberger and Herbrstreit on the call.

Ľ The funky alternate uniforms were worn.

Ľ NBA star and Ohio native LeBron James mingled on the sidelines in full view of a high-powered group of Buckeye football and basketball recruits (including 7-foot-1 Elbert Robinson, who has visited Nebraska).

Ľ The powder-puff schedule to this point allowed nearly every intricate offensive and defensive scheme to be kept under cover

With all the hoopla, I figured this was the game Ohio State had worked toward since mid-March — especially after holding Miller out last week to make sure his sprained knee was 100 percent.

With so few of these opportunities for Big Ten teams, squandering one is not an option.

But this was no showcase of power and dominance like you might see from Alabama or Oregon. It was a long, hard, all-night slog for OSU (5-0, 1-0).

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Please note that none of this is meant as disrespect to Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1).

The Badgers, after looking like they might get run back to Madison in the first five minutes, hunkered in and played Ohio State nose to nose, including getting the ball back with 1:29 to play and a chance to tie.

The theme of this piece is Ohio State falling short of proving it is a top five team, though the rankings currently say differently.

Wisconsin missed a 32-yard field goal in the first quarter, then suffered an epic defensive breakdown with one second left in the first half — allowing Miller to find wide receiver Corey Brown running alone for a 44-yard touchdown. Yet UW still was within 10 points.

Note, too, that Wisconsin twice recovered first-half fumbles deep in Ohio State territory only to see both negated by semi-questionable penalties.

The pregame patter was all about the power of Ohio State.

Being stuck in standstill traffic for 90 minutes had me twirling the dial of early radio shows. The unanimous viewpoint of the Ohio-based golden throats was the more they studied the matchups, the more it looked like Wisconsin had no appreciable advantage in any area and would lose handily.

But true title contenders don't allow Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave, who has struggled with his passing, to throw for a career-high 295 yards including completions of 36, 64, 33 and 49 yards.

True title contenders don't let former UW walk-on wide receiver Jared Abbredaris catch 10 passes for a career-high 207 yards, mostly against returning first-team All-America cornerback Bradley Roby.

True title contenders don't have a second-half drive chart at home in a monster game that reads like this: punt, out of downs (failed run on fourth-and-1), touchdown, punt, punt, punt.

Ohio State also got the benefit of seeing Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon, the nation's leading rusher, leave the game for good on the final play of the third quarter with a leg injury. He finished with 15 carries for 74 yards.

Now, the Buckeyes have their own injury problem.

Senior free safety Christian Bryant, OSU's second leading tackler, suffered a broken ankle in the final minute and left the stadium in an ambulance to have surgery.

The injury left Ohio State coach Urban Meyer visibly shaken.

“We lost our captain, and that's tough news,” Meyer said. “I love that kid. That darn kid has done so much for our program and come so far. Doggone it!”

That somber note with Meyer banging his hand on the podium in frustration was an appropriate end to a night that didn't meet Ohio State's expectations.

The Buckeyes and their 17-game winning streak clearly are the best the Big Ten have to offer. But being No. 1 in a league that has slipped to last among the Power Five conferences doesn't put you in the national title chase.

Contact the writer: Lee Barfknecht

lee.barfknecht@owh.com    |   402-444-1024    |  

Lee Barfknecht has won nine national writing awards from four separate organizations, and is a 12-time winner of the Nebraska sportswriter of the year award. He covers Big Ten football and basketball, Nebraska basketball and other college financial issues for The World-Herald.

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