In every special season at Ohio State, there has been a defining moment, a game along the way that tests the hearts of both the Buckeyes and their fans.
In the 2014 march to the College Football Playoff title it came at Penn State, a double-overtime thriller that ended with a sack by OSU’s Joey Bosa.
In the 2002 run to the BCS championship, the signature victory was a 10-6 triumph on Nov. 9 at Purdue, won on Craig Krenzel’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins with 1:36 left. But co-captain Mike Doss cited Game 4, a four-point escape against Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium as the turning point.
Saturday night’s 30-23 overtime victory over No. 8 Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium might have been another one of those games.
It is still too soon to tell if the 2016 Buckeyes have what it takes to capture a second national title in three years. In the first half against Wisconsin, No. 2 Ohio State’s offense sputtered, and its defense was gashed for 170 yards rushing. Going back to the previous game against Indiana, the OSU passing attack struggled for six quarters before finding its rhythm. Coach Urban Meyer told the Big Ten Network that he was P.O.ed at halftime, and he didn’t use those words.
“I came in there, and I was ready to tear into people,” Meyer said. “Then I looked, and there were a bunch of professionals going about their business.”
With the adjustments, OSU scored two touchdowns before the fourth quarter was a minute old and outgained Wisconsin 118 yards to 11 in the third quarter.
Ohio State’s victory ended on a sack, this one a team assault as junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis dropped the Badgers’ Alex Hornibrook for an 11-yard loss. Sophomore receiver Noah Brown scored the game-winning touchdown on a 7-yard pass from J.T. Barrett on third-and-2 and Meyer noted how Brown is becoming Barrett’s go-to target inside the 20.
Meyer called the Buckeyes’ 45-24 road victory over then-No. 14 Oklahoma on Sept. 17 a “coming of age game” for a team that returned only six starters.
But that one didn’t ever feel like the Buckeyes were in dire straits. Against the Badgers, the Buckeyes fell behind 10-0 with 6:17 left in the first quarter.
“There were some indicators that it was going to be a bad ending, but on the sideline you couldn’t tell,” Meyer said.
That’s why players and coaches left Camp Randall in a torrential thunderstorm feeling that the victory that sent them to 6-0, 3-0 in the Big Ten, meant more.
“From watching what Ohio State’s done with a game like this in the past, a game like this at this particular time of the year is perfect,” said freshman defensive end Nick Bosa, Joey’s brother. “Perfect to bring us closer and show we can go against adversity. I think it will help us in the future.”
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the young Buckeyes got to see “what they’re really made of” against the Badgers.
“They get to see how they react and respond in real tough situations,” Fickell said. “Nobody does a better job than our program of putting these guys in tough situations, whether it’s in the winter, whether it’s in fall camp. But you can’t be put in this kind of situation, on the road in a hostile environment when you’re not playing well, and you’ve just got to find a way.
“This is a growing moment for us. We’ll get a lot better because of this; we’ll get a lot closer because of this, and ultimately it will make us a better team.”
Barrett didn’t want to compare the victory to the one against Penn State in 2014, but junior right guard Billy Price thinks it was similar.
The Buckeyes saved their best for overtime. But Fickell still referred to “outside influences,” perhaps fearing they will get overconfident as national praise comes from all sides.
“The reality is we’ve got to keep doing it. As we have more success and things happen, the brotherhood is going to be stronger and stronger as long as we don’t allow the outside influences to affect us,” Fickell said. “I don’t think there’s a guy out there that thought they played the best game they could have, but they know that they fought together and realized they need one another.”
Price felt the growing brotherhood, too.
“There’s an incredible trust and chemistry on this team right now,” Price said. “It’s not just between the offense and the offensive line and the quarterbacks, it’s between everybody. Everybody wants to get on that field and put in for this team. That’s something you can’t put a price on. It goes to show who we are as people.
“The defense gets a stop, and the offense is all hyped up ready to go. When I come off the field, Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, all those guys are standing there congratulating us, ‘Way to dominate.’ You can’t put words on what that means.”
But with six regular-season games remaining, including Saturday night’s at Penn State, Price didn’t want to overstate the effects of the victory at Wisconsin. That might come in hindsight, perhaps in January.
“It’s another step on our journey,” Price said.
ABOUT THE WRITER Marla Ridenour is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal.