MADISON, Wis. (AP) — There are stakes beyond The Game for No. 8 Ohio State.
Keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe is just a side note this year for No. 5 Wisconsin.
The final-week rivalry games will impact bragging rights and the College Football Playoff race, but the Big Ten championship matchup is all set. It will be the Buckeyes against the Badgers in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.
Not that there was much drama going into the second-to-last week of the season, especially in the West. The undefeated Badgers (11-0, 8-0, No. 5 CFP), who are off to the best start in school history, wrapped up the trip two weeks ago after overpowering Iowa.
The combination of the win over Illinois on Saturday and Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin clinched the championship game berth out of the East for the Buckeyes (9-2, 7-1, No. 9 CFP).
Don’t think for a moment though that the Buckeyes are looking past The Game.
“Enjoy the win and look forward to the greatest rivalry in all of sport next week,” senior center Billy Price said.
Similarly, coach Paul Chryst has Wisconsin playing with week-to-week blinders. They’re not looking past Minnesota in the annual grudge match for Paul Bunyan’s Axe next weekend.
“You want them to enjoy this one tonight,” Chryst said after the 24-10 win Saturday over the Wolverines. “And then we get an opportunity to come back and get ready for next week. That’s a pretty good world.”
There is a bigger prize in sight for both teams beyond rankings and trophy games. Both teams are still alive for a College Football Playoff spot, especially the Badgers. Win out and Wisconsin stands a good shot of getting into the final four.
The defense is championship-caliber. Big Ten-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor has turned into a star in his freshman season. The team thrives under adversity.
But after beating ranked teams Iowa and Michigan in back-to-back weeks, getting a win over Ohio State would give Wisconsin’s postseason resume another boost.
The Badgers will be quick to remind anyone who asks that they have to beat the Gophers first to stay unbeaten, regardless of Minnesota’s struggles. The Gophers have lost three of four, with all three defeats coming on the road. The lone victory in that stretch came against struggling Nebraska in Minneapolis.
The Axe has been in Wisconsin hands for 13 straight years.
“We always talk about focusing on the now,” Badgers receiver Kendric Pryor said. “Each week we just try to focus on who our opponent is and what we need to do that week to beat them.”
Ohio State faces a decidedly tougher assignment next week for its road trip to the Big House. A win for the Wolverines would make their season after falling short in the East.
Michigan’s offense has problems, especially if quarterback Brandon Peters can’t play after getting knocked out of the Wisconsin game. But the Wolverines’ athletic defense will test Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, especially in Ann Arbor.
With two losses, the Buckeyes are barely hanging on to playoff hopes.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said that he would allow his players to celebrate the division title “for a quick minute.”
“And then it’s over,” Meyer said. “Now it’s time to put our laser lights on our rival.”
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