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Buckeyes’ loss leaves league race wide open

Wisconsin's Niles Brinley (29) knocks Ohio State quarterback Terelle Pryor out of bounds, but not before Pryor picked up the first down at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin, on Saturday. (MCT DIRECT PHOTO)

The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. — With one powerful performance against Ohio State, Wisconsin shook up the national championship race and muddled the road to the Rose Bowl in the Big Ten.

The big winner in the conference on Saturday, however, might have been Michigan State.

Say this for the Wisconsin Badgers, they know who they are. It’s almost become cliche to talk about how the Badgers rely on their burly offensive line and talented backs to outmuscle opponents.

Anyone who watched Wisconsin’s 31-18 upset of Ohio State on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, knows the Badgers have some big-time athleticism and speed (David Gilreath, J.J. Watt and James White just to name a few players) to go along with that brute strength.

Still, No. 10 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) doesn’t get to stockpile five-star recruits the way Ohio State does. Inside most cliches is a modicum of truth and even the Badgers embrace what they call the Wisconsin Way.

“It’s just a great win and we’re proud of it, but I think when we do things right on this offense and this defense we can challenge anybody. And that’s football played right, especially our football,” said John Moffitt, one of those 300-pound offensive linemen who make the Badgers go. “We don’t have a Terrelle Pryor, who is a great player, who you just watch in awe. So we’ve got to do things clean. That’s what’s great about it. The Wisconsin Way, definitely.”

Coach Bret Bielema’s team came into the season with high hopes to challenge the Buckeyes and Iowa in the conference and maybe even make a national title run. Losing to Michigan State derailed any national title chances and another loss would have relegated the Badgers to playing for a second-tier bowl the rest of the way.

There’s nothing awful about spending the New Year in central Florida, but Wisconsin hasn’t played in the Rose Bowl since 2000 and southern California is more what the Badgers had in mind.

As for Ohio State (6-1, 2-1), the Buckeyes started the season ranked No. 2 and thinking national championship — pretty much business as usual for Jim Tressel’s team.

Forget that. The fans in Columbus will probably have to wait at least another season to get that national championship the Buckeyes last won in 2002. Pryor is awe-inspiring, but his lack of polish as a passer leaves him a less-than-great quarterback.

Maybe Pryor would be Cam Newton if he and the Auburn quarterback swapped places and offenses. But that doesn’t matter. Pryor is very good and his shortcomings didn’t cost Ohio State the Wisconsin game nor will they be the biggest hurdle for the Buckeyes to clear if they want to get back to the Rose Bowl.

Ohio State’s defense, which had gobbled up lesser opponents for the first six games, couldn’t hold up against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes’ are a bit undersized in the front seven, with a couple linebackers weighing in under 230. Wisconsin ran for 184 yards against a unit that allowing about 78 per game.

When the Buckeyes had to overcommit to stop the run in the fourth quarter, after cutting the Badgers’ lead to 21-18, Scott Tolzien completed key passes to help Wisconsin pull away.

It’s still early in the Big Ten season, but right now the front-runner is surprising Michigan State (7-0, 3-0), the only unbeaten team left in the conference.

The Spartans, who haven’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1988, don’t play Ohio State. That’s both a plus and a minus. In the Big Ten race, avoiding the Buckeyes can’t hurt. If the Spartans want to sneak up in the national title race, missing the opportunity for a potential quality victory against the Buckeyes hurts.

The team really in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten is Iowa (6-1, 3-0). The Hawkeyes play Wisconsin (on Saturday), Michigan State and Ohio State all at home.

The road to Pasadena goes through Iowa City.

QUICK HITS

— The first BCS standings had Oklahoma first, Oregon second and Boise State third. No matter where your team sits, don’t celebrate or panic. Only once in 12 seasons have the teams that started in the top two spots finished that way. That was 2005, with USC and Texas.

— Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt showed he’s got a little Babe Ruth in him. Watt and quarterback Scott Tolzien have befriended a young Badgers fan named Jaxson Hinkens, who is being treated for cancer. Hinkens asked Watt to sack Terrelle Pryor for him. Watt got two. “After that first sack, I knew he was in Coach B’s office, so I did my celebration a little bit toward his direction,” Watt said.

— No. 18 Missouri’s surprising 6-0 start has been fueled by defense. The Tigers are third in the Big 12 in total defense and second in the country in points allowed at 10.8 per game. Led by linebacker Zaviar Gooden and safety Kenji Jackson, the Tigers’ defense will face its toughest test yet Saturday at home against No. 3 Oklahoma.