Ohio State will compete for its first Big Ten championship since 2014, against the same opponent it routed 59-0 in 2014.
Saturday's game has other superficial similarities to the 2014 game beyond the opponent, stakes, and venue. J.T. Barrett's uncertain status for Saturday recalls the situation in 2014 even as Barrett is apparently still good to go on Saturday. In 2014, Barrett was injured for the remainder of the season late into the preceding Michigan game. He watched from the sidelines as Cardale Jones took his spot.
The situation in 2014 led to one major contrast from this year's championship game to 2014. Ohio State is favored against Wisconsin on Saturday. The Buckeyes were underdogs in 2014.
Few knew what to expect of the Buckeyes against Wisconsin. This was the same team with a grisly home loss to a mediocre Virginia Tech team on its record. It had struggled to put away Indiana and Michigan in the previous weeks. It was on what amounted to its third quarterback of the season after Braxton Miller was previously injured in the summer.
Wisconsin was a good team, if not great. It almost beat LSU in the season-opener in Houston and had just one other loss at Northwestern by six points. Wisconsin's schedule and record may not have suggested a playoff-caliber team but the Badgers could do some damage on both sides of the ball. Melvin Gordon was a Heisman finalist and had previously set an NCAA record for rushing yards against Nebraska. The country's No. 4 rushing offense, led by the leading rusher in the NCAA, masked what was an excellent defense. The Badgers finished 2014 with the No. 4 total defense in the NCAA.
In other words, there was good reason Wisconsin was favored by about four points in Indianapolis at kickoff in 2014. And yet, the start of that game portended what was going to be a much different script from the pre-game expectations.
Ohio State began with the ball on the 23-yard line. Ohio State's coaches decided to open the game with a passing play to instill some confidence in Cardale Jones. That play became an 8-yard completion to Michael Thomas. That opened up three consecutive running plays for Ezekiel Elliott, which totaled 21 yards. Cardale Jones found Corey Smith for a nine-yard game on the next play.
On 1st and 10 at the Wisconsin 39-yard line, Ohio State called up a fake QB draw as play-action on all-go route to the right side of the field. Devin Smith reduced Sojourn Shelton to a scrub for Ohio State's opening salvo: a six-play, 77-yard touchdown drive in which the Buckeyes never faced a third down situation.
Ohio State's defense signaled it came to play on Wisconsin's opening drive. It stuffed Melvin Gordon to a two-yard gain on first down. Darron Lee annihilated tight end Austin Traylor on a four-yard gain in which Traylor's fumble advanced twice as fair as Traylor's catch. Thereafter, the Buckeyes' defense held Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon to a one-yard loss on third down to force a quick punt from the Badgers.
Two possessions later, Ohio State blitzed the Badgers for a two-play, 93-yard touchdown drive punctuated by an 81-yard run for Ezekiel Elliott.
Combine the Devin Smith pass on a crisp Cardale Jones throw with the Ezekiel Elliott run in which no Wisconsin defender was within 10 yards of him and it became apparent Wisconsin had a major problem on its hands. Ohio State was here to play and had athletes far superior to anyone on Wisconsin's roster.
Ohio State fans may forget amid the outcome of the game that the Wisconsin possession to follow was probably the turning point in the game. Down 14-0, Wisconsin momentarily put its best foot forward on its ensuing drive. Melvin Gordon started the drive running for four yards, 10 yards, and 13 yards. Quarterback Joel Stave completed a pass to Alex Erickson for 11 yards and another first down.
The Badgers advanced to the Ohio State 42-yard line at ease before Vonn Bell intercepted the next play from scrimmage. Rather than threaten to cut the lead to 14-7, the Badgers gave up the ball and conceded what became a field goal drive for Ohio State. The Buckeyes now had a three-score lead.
Wisconsin would only compound matters by going on a three-and-out that lost seven yards of total offense. Ohio State was up 24-0 after three plays of the next drive.
Another Wisconsin three-and-out became another Ohio State touchdown drive. The Buckeyes went up 31-0.
It was ball game just before intermission when Josh Perry forced a Melvin Gordon fumble deep into Wisconsin's side of the field as the Badgers were just trying to get to halftime. Joey Bosa was in the right place at the right time for a scoop-and-score that gave Ohio State a 38-0 halftime lead.
The game was never in doubt after intermission, certainly not after Wisconsin began the third quarter with a punt that became yet another Ohio State quick-strike touchdown. Up 45-0 early in the third quarter, the Wisconsin fans knew the game was over. Indeed, the section of Lucas Oil Stadium for the Wisconsin fans started to empty at halftime.
However, whether Ohio State could keep the shutout was an open question. There had never been a shutout in the history of conference championship games to that point. Despite close calls, Ohio State successfully forced three-and-outs, turnovers on downs, and interceptions prior to Wisconsin's last gasp for points in the final seconds. A 10-play, 44-yard drive ultimately petered out at the Ohio State 21-yard line as time expired.
The Buckeyes entered the game as four-point underdogs and left with the arguably the most decisive rout of any team ever in a conference championship game. Even Colorado got a mercy field goal in a 70-3 loss to Texas in the 2005 Big 12 Championship Game.
The win secured what became a playoff berth for Ohio State. Like 2017, Ohio State was arguably on the outside looking into the playoff. Baylor and TCU may have had better chances. If Ohio State had not routed a good Wisconsin team as it did, the playoff selectors may have ultimately picked their poison among the two Big XII co-champs.
Instead, Ohio State's decisive beatdown of Wisconsin gave the playoff selectors an out. They took it, and Ohio State justified their decision in the following two games en route to the national championship.
Few expect the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game to repeat itself on Saturday. Wisconsin will no doubt work hard to avoid that as the freshmen on that team are seniors now. Still, the venue is the same. The stakes are the same. The opponent is the same. Ohio State fans will certainly hope the outcome is the same on Saturday.