MADISON, Wis. — A quick look at the college football rankings shows an evolution toward speed and ingenuity. No. 2 Oregon is best known for its blur of tempo, No. 3 Boise State for its mischievous creativity and No. 4 Texas Christian for its defensive versatility.
But in an era of zone reads, pistol formations and hybrid defenders, Wisconsin issued a reminder Saturday night of the value of smash-mouth football between the tackles.
The No. 18 Badgers bullied No. 1 from the opening kickoff, and their 31-18 upset offered a referendum of the value of physical, conservative and quintessentially old-school football.
On a campus where the popular watering hole Wando’s gives out free bacon on Tuesday nights and its most famous eatery is State Street Brats, there is still a premium on fat content. And that showed Saturday as the Badgers’ offensive line, which averages 318 pounds, threw its weight around. It simply overpowered Ohio State as John Clay ran for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns and the Badgers finished with 184 rushing yards.
“We play football here, we don’t play basketball here,” Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in reference to the era of spread offenses. After saying that Bo Ryan’s basketball program practiced earlier that day, Alvarez added: “Basketball is basketball, football is football. We play football. And I love it.”
Ohio State’s no-show will weigh heavily on the national title race; the Buckeyes would need a flurry of improbable results to re-enter. They joined Nebraska in essentially bowing out of the race Saturday, as the No. 5 Cornhuskers put forth a wire-to-wire clunker in a 20-13 home loss to unranked Texas.
“Team-wise, we just blew it,” said Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who finished 14 for 28 with no touchdowns and one interception. “This loss doesn’t define us as a team. It doesn’t define me. I know that.”
Ohio State’s loss leaves the door open for Oregon to become No. 1 for the first time in the Associated Press poll. When the BCS rankings are released Sunday, the independent analyst Jerry Palm said there was a 70 percent chance No. 3 Boise State will be on top.
Every loss by a major programs appears to clear the path to the B.C.S. title game for nontraditional powers like Boise State and No. 4 T.C.U. The outcome Saturday will leave the conservative Ohio State coach Jim Tressel open for second guessing. He shied away from taking risks to keep the Buckeyes in the game. Tressel went for a field goal on the Wisconsin 4-yard line when trailing, 21-0, and later punted on fourth-and-10 when trailing by 10 points with less than seven minutes remaining.
Wisconsin clinched the game when quarterback Scott Tolzien hit tight end Jacob Pedersen for a 33-yard gain on first down. That play call flipped field position and led to Wisconsin’s 41-yard field goal by Philip Welch.
“We talked about the fact that it was fourth-and-10,” Tressel said. “The percent chance of getting a fourth-and-10 is probably less than the percent chance of stopping them and seeing if we can score.”
Ohio State entered the game as the top-ranked team, but its biggest victory came at home against a then-No. 12 Miami team that is no longer ranked.
Ohio State gave the skeptics fodder by allowing Wisconsin’s David Gilreath to return the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. That began a night of revelry among the sold-out crowd at Camp Randall Stadium, where the press box trembles during moments of euphoria.
While Wisconsin’s first touchdown came on an explosive play, the rest of its first-half domination came from its age-old playbook. Clay, a tailback straight out of the bruising mold of the former Badgers and P.J. Hill, scored the Badgers’ two other touchdowns in the first half.
The first came on a 14-yard run that capped a six-play drive, five of which were runs by Clay. That drive showed how dominant the line could be, as Clay ran through holes that looked like they had been forged by glaciers.
Wisconsin’s next scoring drive could be put in a time capsule to epitomize this era of Badgers football. Wisconsin scored on a 19-play, 89-yard drive that gobbled up 10 minutes 4 seconds. Alvarez certainly smiled. So did Clay, who bowled in from 1 yard out and showed why he carved the numbers of his starting offensive linemen in his hair.
“Just to stick with what we have in mind and what our plan was and to see it executed, that’s very rewarding,” said Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema, who led the Badgers to their first victory against a No. 1 team since 1981.
By the time the students had been cleared from the field, it was a mess of cigarette butts, orphaned flip flops and broken sunglasses. With Ohio State bounced from the title race and a once-in-generation victory delivered, an old-school party had just begun.