Commentary

Ohio State's loss opens up title race

Originally Published: October 16, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

MADISON, Wis. -- By night's end, there was only one undefeated entity at Camp Randall Stadium.

The goal posts.

Somehow, they remained upright despite the dogged and drunken efforts of Wisconsin fans to bring them down the way their Badgers brought down No. 1 Ohio State. The posts clearly are made of sterner stuff than the Buckeyes, whose reign atop the polls lasted all of a week.

[+] EnlargeJim Tressel and Jermale Hines
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesOhio State saw its national championship dreams slip away in Madison.

As we await the first BCS standings Sunday, this is your two-week scorecard in what is looking like a progressively wilder season in college football:

Alabama lost 35-21 to South Carolina -- which reverted to true form Saturday by losing to Kentucky for the first time in the Steve Spurrier era. Now the Buckeyes have been ushered out of realistic national championship contention with a 31-18 bruising from Bucky Badger.

Two top-ranked teams whipped. Two double-digit margins of defeat. Two No. 1s that combined to trail for more than 113 of a possible 120 minutes. Two field stormings.

"We just blew it as a team," a visibly depressed Terrelle Pryor said.

Now the field of title aspirants thins -- and it appears to be Oregon's turn to wear the voter-awarded bull's-eye. The No. 2 Ducks had the safest assignment of all Saturday -- a bye week -- and are likely to take over the top spot for the first time in history. But road trips to play USC, California and Oregon State remain, plus a home date with Arizona.

Behind the Ducks it gets more interesting, especially now that No. 5 Nebraska and its paper-thin résumé also were dismissed from the national title chase with a home loss to twice-beaten Texas. Boise State, the lightning-rod team of 2010, should move up to No. 2 in the polls and likely will be on top of the BCS standings. Which is where the Broncos should be.

TCU, Oklahoma, Auburn, LSU, Michigan State, Utah, Oklahoma State, Nevada (for now) and Missouri are the only other undefeated teams.

Those ranks will thin further next weekend with four unbeatens facing off (Oklahoma at Missouri, LSU at Auburn). Plus other potential mayhem.

This was 6-1 Wisconsin's first victory over a No. 1 team in 29 years, but the biggest news here was that Ohio State lost. And the way it lost should be perplexing and frustrating to Buckeyes fans.

• Jim Tressel's cherished special teams had another meltdown, giving up a 97-yard kickoff return touchdown to start the game and setting the tone for a 21-0 Bucky beatdown in the first 17 minutes.

"Nothing against our special teams," Pryor said, "but that really hurt us. That kicked us in our rear end."

Ohio State has shockingly had its rear end kicked a lot recently on kick coverage. It surrendered two returns for touchdowns against Miami last month. It surrendered a kickoff return TD late last season against Iowa.

"If you're on the road and you don't at least match their special teams, if you let the home team win the special teams part, whew, it's going to be tough to win," Tressel said.

• Tressel's normally rock-solid run defense was bludgeoned for 184 yards -- 138 of them in the first half, when Wisconsin pushed the around the Buckeyes with impunity.

"We felt like we were ready for this, and then the run game just overwhelmed us," said linebacker Brian Rolle. "… It's like, Did they really just do what I think they did? It really hasn't set in. They just lined up toe-to-toe and beat us."

Wisconsin is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The Badgers ran straight at Ohio State -- and by straight, I mean dead straight. Rarely even as wide as off-tackle. They mashed the Buckeyes between the guards, with John Clay and James White rushing for 160 of their yards on the inside.

But give Wisconsin credit for going to the air to regain momentum after Ohio State threatened in the fourth quarter. After the Buckeyes had cut the deficit to 21-18, the Badgers got the ball back and threw four straight times, completing three for 36 yards. Six plays later Wisconsin scored for a 28-18 lead.

Still, Ohio State had time to pull out a remarkable comeback until …

[+] EnlargeJohn Clay
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJohn Clay ran all over Ohio State's porous defense.

• Tressel's trademark conservatism helped deprive his team of chances to win. The Buckeyes went with some odd play calls inside the Wisconsin 5 in the first half, trailing by 21, and settled for a field goal. Then The Vest opted to punt with 6:29 remaining while trailing by 10, and it backfired.

The Buckeyes faced a fourth-and-10 at their 29 at that point -- a tough down to convert. But it certainly was no tougher than the Tressel plan at that point. When asked about it afterward, he said it was probably easier to hold Wisconsin, get the ball back and score, recover an onside kick and score again.

If you say so, Tress. But when your defense gave up a drive for the clinching field goal, it was all over but the unconvincing postgame spin that everything was going to be OK.

"This loss doesn't define us as a team," Pryor said. "It doesn't define me, I know that. There's going to be plenty more cheers and joy."

The cheers should return next week against Purdue -- but this loss does define a team that entered the season as co-favorite with Alabama to play in the BCS championship game. It defines Ohio State as good, but not good enough to reach its ultimate goals.

For the fourth straight season the Buckeyes have lost a league game, and for the third time in that span they lost to an underdog. Given the weakness of their schedule to date, this will be hard to overcome.

Along the way Ohio State forfeited control of its destiny -- not just for a national title, but also a Big Ten title. That now belongs to Michigan State, which is a surprising 7-0 and does not play Ohio State.

"It depends on if other teams lose," Pryor said. "We've just got to stop taking stuff for granted."

If the past two weeks have proved anything, it's this: nobody at the top of the rankings can take anything for granted.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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