What we saw on Saturday is exactly what Wisconsin needs to be a successful and balanced offense again. Sophomore quarterback Joel Stave, mired in somewhat of an early season slump, played the best game of his young career against arguably the top defense in the Big Ten.
Stave's final stat line is impressive: 20-for-24 for 295 yards (a career best), two touchdowns and one interception. Those passing yards are the most passing yards by a Wisconsin quarterback since Russell Wilson's 296 yards against Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl.
After failing to throw for over 220 yards in any of the four games, Stave had completions to five different receivers and five passes over 20 yards.
"Joel is so consistent," said senior linebacker Chris Borland. "He's very poised. He's developing into a really good quarterback. He has a lot of potential. Everybody is behind him. He's playing well, he's getting better and it's exciting to see."
Stave's lone interception was regrettable. Pressure from the left side caused Stave to get hit as he threw, missing a play that might have been a touchdown. Stave responded, however, with a 9-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
The passing game was exactly what it needs to be at Wisconsin for the most part: consistent.
"I thought we did a much better job throwing the ball, play-action pass, things like that," said Stave. "We called it a lot more because of what they were giving us. We've got to take what they're giving us. When they're giving us an opportunity to play-action pass and drive the ball down the field, we've got to make sure we're taking it."
What we saw on Saturday is exactly what Wisconsin does not need if it wants to be a successful and balanced offense again.
Wisconsin came in averaging 349.8 yards per game and while the Badgers hadn't played a stout run defense yet, the end result of only 104 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown was a wholehearted disappointment, especially after eclipsing 200 yards against the Buckeyes a season ago.
"I thought they were very physical, they fit well within the runs, safeties came up and did a nice job getting involved in the run game early in the plays," said head coach Gary Andersen about Ohio State. "That shows a good defense."
Melvin Gordon got the most work with 15 carries, but he averaged only 4.9 yards per carry with a long of 16. Most of his 74 yards were between the tackles, as Gordon was never able to get outside on a jet sweep or in the open field to showcase his athleticism. Kudos to the Buckeyes on preventing that.
James White filled in and got 22 of his 31 yards in the fourth quarter, including UW's 17-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to keep a flicker of hope alive. UW needs more from White down the stretch against better defenses.
Gordon left the game in the third quarter after his knee was landed on. Andersen said he expects Gordon to be OK, so the bye week comes at the perfect time.
Where would this group be without Jared Abbrederis? Abbrederis carried the passing game with his career-high 207 receiving yards. It was his eight career 100-yard receiving game and his second at Ohio State (113 yards in 2011), making him the first UW players with two 100-yard receiving games against Ohio State.
Abbrederis had 159 receiving yards in the first half, already breaking his career high.
"First half he had a great half," Stave said of Abbrederis. "He's obviously a very good player and did a good job of getting open, finding the holes in the defense. When you throw it to him, he's going to catch it."
White caught four passes for 16 yards, Sam Arneson caught three passes for 39 yards (both career highs), Alec Erickson caught two passes for 25 (but couldn't complete a catch on the goal line after the ground knocked the ball loose) and Jeff Duckworth added one catch for eight.
A little bit of a mixed bag for the group up front, providing decent protection (two sacks, three quarterback hurries) but didn't open up many lanes for the tailbacks. The group was also whistled for three false start penalties, including two on senior Ryan Groy.
Much like the Arizona State game when he got beaten on a two-point conversion attempt, forcing a rushed throw and an incompletion, Tyler Marz got crushed by Adolphus Washington, who put pressure on Stave and forced a rushed throw that was intercepted. That led to an Ohio State touchdown and a 31-14 lead.
That play preceded Rob Havenstein also made a critical error. After Wisconsin made a fourth-and-1 stop and got the ball at the 39, Havenstein failed to block the inside rusher, leaving a clean lane to sack Stave. The interception happened on the next play and the game turned.
Warren Herring notched a career-high two sacks but the defensive line was not able to get much pressure on Ohio State's spread attack. Wisconsin didn't allow the "big play" to happen in the running game (no plays over 15 yards) and Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller rarely looked super comfortable in the pocket.
Carlos Hyde rushed for 85 yards on 17 carries and Miller had 83 yards on 22 carries, helping Ohio State finish with 192 yards for a 4.5 yards per carry average. The front line was fine, but the Badgers probably were expecting better.
Like Abbrederis to the wide receivers, where would the linebackers be without Chris Borland? Making his final appearance at Ohio Stadium, Borland matched his career high with a game-high 16 tackles, including stuffing Hyde twice in short-yardage situations to give a boost to the defense. One of those gave him a half tackle for loss, moving him into sole possession of fifth place on the Badgers' all-time list (43.5).
Conor O'Neill continues to play at an extremely high level, registering seven tackles despite Derek Landisch getting the start. The group defended the middle of the field and the flats decently. Having Michael Caputo (four tackles, half sack) on the field as an outside linebacker in some packages adds a new wrinkle.
Oui! Where do we begin with this group.
First the good: Who would have guessed that Tanner McEvoy's first major impact on this year's Wisconsin team would be at safety? Rotating in with the number one unit, McEvoy finished with four tackles and looks to finally find his comfort level.
Now the bad: Wisconsin true freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton was beaten for a touchdown. That's expected to happen. Having miscommunication and bad coverage from two upperclassmen (safety Dezmen Southward and cornerback Peniel Jean) that result in touchdowns is disturbing.
"That's definitely something we can fix, communicating," said Jean. "We knew being on this road that it's going to be real hostile and loud."
Back to the Good: Shelton finished five solo tackles, a team-high two pass breakups (including one in the end zone) and one forced fumble. He's going to be a good player for the Badgers, as long as he knocks off the taunting. He was fortunate he wasn't flagged for the penalty; something that would have caused Andersen to make Shelton walk home.
More Good: Wisconsin made some good halftime adjustments and held Ohio State to only six completions on eight attempts in the second half. The Buckeyes passes for only 38 yards after halftime.
And finally, the unacceptable: On the final play before halftime, Jean said Wisconsin was in Cover 3 zone coverage and was reading the slot receiver, who broke into his zone. Corey Brown was in Jean's zone but left it to go deep, and Jean passed him off to Dezmen Southward. Miscommunication caused Brown to be open for a momentum-killing touchdown with one second left in the second quarter. "You can't just give them easy plays," said Andersen. "I don't care if it's a miscommunication. I don't care if it's a simple missed clean, easy tackle, a blown coverage, a blown gap, you can't give those things up if you're going to come into a place like this and play a very talented football team. You have to make those plays. It's hard enough to stop them. It's hard enough to score. It's hard enough to play good special teams if you execute the right well, let alone if you make mistakes.
To make matters worse, Shelton dropped, arguably, the easiest interception of his career on the play before, allowing Ohio State another chance at the end zone.
"That's a hard one that's sitting with me right now," said Shelton. "I can't lie to you. At this position you have to move on after plays like that but it is something that's a burden on me right now. I want to be a game changer. If I would have got that it could have been a really big game changing moment."
Wisconsin's secondary was beat for three touchdowns in the first half (UW came in having not allowed a passing touchdown all season) and UW's secondary looks porous in coverage, as Ohio State's speed and simple misdirection caused all sorts of issues for UW.
Andersen said all those things need to be cleaned up before the next game. It would be wise considering UW's next two opponents have quarterbacks putting up some gaudy numbers.
Borland being lined up illegally on the fake punt was a killer penalty for Wisconsin, especially since the Badgers would have recovered a fumble inside the Ohio State 20-yard line. In a tight game, that would have made a huge difference.
Kyle French's 42-yard field goal in the fourth quarter was important for Wisconsin in keeping its faint pulse, but missing a 32-yard kick in the second quarter was disappointing.
Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer punted five times, averaged 40.4 yards and never unleashed the booming kick to pin the Buckeyes deep in their own field. Twice the Buckeyes started in Wisconsin territory following a punt and once at their own 45. To be fair, he punted inside his own 10-yard line multiple times.
Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston was outstanding. He put all six of his punts inside the 20 and boomed a 55-yard punt in the fourth quarter when Wisconsin was trying to make its comeback.
"He absolutely pinned us four or five times," said Andersen. "At the end he has to boom one and he boomed one. That young man did a tremendous job, kicked the ball well and got us backed up. That's difficult to get out of there and go 90 yards on a really good defense."
Wisconsin's Kyle Zuleger returned three kicks for 54 yards, including a long of 21, as the Badgers didn't get much out of the return game.