Alex Hornibrook

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook throws an incomplete pass on the final offensive series in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Big Ten Football Championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

INDIANAPOLIS — University of Wisconsin fans have experienced the feeling before.

You know, that sense of wonderment that flows through you when your team goes somewhere that few people, including a sizable portion of your own fan base, ever thought it could. Like say, two playoff victories away from a national championship.

After feeling the adrenalin rush of going to the NCAA Final Four three times since 2000 in men's basketball, UW fans hoped to experience it again Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, only this time their expectations were centered on a Badgers football team that had tackled every challenge in its path.

UW's 12-0 regular-season record had pushed it to No. 4 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings and a victory over lower-ranked but favored Ohio State in the Big Ten Conference championship game almost certainly would have put UW in position to compete for the national championship, something the school has never achieved in football.

Alas, UW's bid to win the program's 15th Big Ten title and reach college football's version of the final four fell short Saturday as the Badgers succumbed to the explosivness of Ohio State, dropping a 27-21 decision to the Buckeyes and putting an abrupt halt to a three-month build up of expectations.

Afterward, the disappointment ran deep for a team that was on the verge of doing something special.

"Any time you just put everything out there for one another and for this team, it's obviously tough," tight end Troy Fumagalli said. "It'll take a little time to get past."

That'll be true for more than just the players because this was inarguably the biggest game in UW football history. That's because UW had never been this close to a national championship.

Sure, the Badgers would have had to win two games against elite opponents in the playoffs, but for the first time, they had a team with both the capability and opportunity to compete for the national title. There have been close calls before, but a victory over the Buckeyes would have advanced the Badgers into an even bigger game than this one.

Though UW committed some of the same early offensive mistakes it had been guilty of all season and added some uncharacteristic foul-ups on defense, this loss wasn't entirely self-inflicted. No, it was the Buckeyes who doused the euphoria, using their talent to control UW for three quarters and then hanging on when the gritty Badgers made their usual run at the end.

Ranked eighth in the CFP standings, Ohio State used its speed to grab a 21-10 halftime lead. If anything, the Buckeyes left the Badgers wondering how in the world they lost two games this season. That was no consolation, however.

"No matter how good the team is, you always go into it expecting to win," tackle Michael Deiter said. "Especially when you're in the game and you're fighting and you know you could be better and you're not there 100 percent the whole game, it hurts. But you do know how good they are. You respect that. You know you didn't lose to a slouch."

UW had experienced mistake-filled first halves all season but had enough to overcome them every time. This time, they trailed the Buckeyes by 11 at halftime as they were hurt by two things, one uncharacteristic, one painfully familiar.

On its second series, UW smartly drove to the Ohio State 18-yard line, but quarterback Alex Hornibrook underthrew a fade pass to Fumagalli and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward, who gives up 7 inches in height to Fumagalli, picked it off. It was his 13th interception in 10 games against Big Ten opponents and UW lost a chance to take the early lead.

What happened after that was shocking because it was the defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation, that faltered. UW, which had allowed only two plays longer than 50 yards in their first 12 games, gave up three longer than that in the first half. The Badgers' problems stemmed from coverage issues and shoddy tackling, neither of which had surfaced against the less-explosive offenses UW dominated all season.

In all Ohio State rolled up 309 yards in first half. For comparison purposes, UW had allowed 300 or more yards only twice in its first 12 games. The Buckeyes finished with 449, the most the Badgers have given up all season.

If not for outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel, UW might have been out of it by halftime. Van Ginkel return an interception for a touchdown and both forced and recovered a fumble that set up a field goal, essentially accounting for all 10 UW points.

A second-half team all season, UW come back strong, especially on defense, but the Buckeyes kept them at arm's length. The Badgers' final drive ended near midfield with only 1 minute, 9 seconds to play, which is how close UW came to reaching the final four.

"It's tough, just like losing the Big Ten championship is tough," linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "We've done so well to this point and put ourselves in a great position to be here that not to get it done is tough."

The result was a feeling no one who follows the Badgers expected. A New Year's Six bowl game awaits UW, but as much fun as that could be, it has no chance of being the biggest game in school history.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.