- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Earlier in the week, Urban Meyer called Wisconsin the "king of the Big Ten." After yet another Ohio State victory on Saturday night, no questions remained about the real league royalty: the team with King James on its sideline.
Yet this was hardly a coronation. The No. 4 Buckeyes had to fight until the final minute to hold off the No. 23 Badgers 31-24 in front the third-largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe. Plenty of people probably checked in on this prime-time game to find out just how good Ohio State truly was after it had cruised against soft competition for the first four weeks.
They might have come away still unsure.
"I don't know if we made a statement," safety C.J. Barnett said. "We know we had our doubters. Hopefully, we proved them wrong. But if not, it doesn't matter. We're just going to keep working."
Meyer's team looked ready to provide a resounding impression at various points in the game. Quarterback Braxton Miller returned from his 11-quarter injury absence and immediately led the offense on a touchdown drive in just four plays. The Buckeyes went end to end as fast as LeBron James, who cheered on his home state school from the 20-yard line during the first half.
Miller, reunited with running back Carlos Hyde for the first time this season, threw four touchdown passes and put his team up 31-14 with his final one late in the third quarter. Take that, Oregon and Clemson and other teams jockeying for BCS title game position.
But Wisconsin, which hasn't lost a game by more than seven points since 2010, refused to buckle. The hard-luck Badgers outgained the Buckeyes (399-390) and cost themselves a better chance at the upset because of a missed field goal, several costly penalties and a defensive breakdown at the end of the first half. Saturday's game was billed as the de facto Leaders Division title game. It might well have just pitted the two best teams in the entire Big Ten.
"They did exactly what we thought they were going to do," Ohio State receiver Philly Brown said. "We knew it going into this game that it was going to be a brawl."
Just not exactly the type many expected. The young Buckeyes defensive front seven accomplished the nearly impossible by shutting down Wisconsin's running game and its star tailbacks, Melvin Gordon and James White. The Badgers finished with just 104 rushing yards on 27 carries, while Gordon -- the leading rusher in the FBS heading into Saturday -- was limited to 74 yards on 15 attempts before a leg injury ended his night early.
The longest Wisconsin rush of the night was White's 17-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Mostly, however, White and Gordon found little space to maneuver and plenty of defenders in their area.
"I really think we showed to the country that we can stop the run and that we're not anybody to be messing around with," Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "They have a great offensive line, and I feel like our D-line is going to be great also."
Yet the Badgers countered with a surprisingly effective passing game. Quarterback Joel Stave threw for 295 yards, 207 of them going to receiver Jared Abbrederis. Despite everyone in the stadium knowing whom Stave would target, Abbrederis repeatedly found ways to get open while burning Ohio State's all-America cornerback Bradley Roby several times.
"He's got my vote for All-Big Ten," Meyer said. "He did an incredible job."
The bad news in the secondary got much worse late in the game when senior safety Christian Bryant suffered a broken ankle trying to make an interception. Bryant is one of the top leaders on the defense, and Meyer was so upset about the season-ending injury that he slapped the podium in his postgame news conference and said, "Doggone it. Hard part of the game, boy."
Bryant's on-field absence could be felt next week at Northwestern. As far as off the field, it could last even longer.
"I'm not worried about the playing [aspect]," Barnett said. "I'm worried about the leadership aspect. It's going to take all of our leaders to do more. I've got to do more."
The injury hurts, but the Buckeyes still boast an enviable position. They hold a virtual two-game lead over Wisconsin in the Leaders race by owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. After Saturday's "GameDay" showdown at No. 17 Northwestern, the Buckeyes should have smooth sailing until the season-ender at Michigan, which might or might not have fixed its troubling flaws by then.
Critics might harp on Saturday's narrow margin of victory, but they would underrate Wisconsin if so.
"It's a Big Ten win," offensive lineman Andrew Norwell said. "To beat a Big Ten team, that says something, especially a ranked team. This was a big win for us."
Not, however, a dominant one. The Buckeyes might need those while trying to convince pollsters and Big Ten skeptics that they belong in the national championship picture. Saturday's game was more reminiscent of last year's team, which eked out several close victories on its way to 12-0.
Still, the wins keep piling up. Meyer has never known an unhappy postgame "Carmen Ohio" sing-along as a head coach, having produced 17 straight victories. When you can bring LeBron James in for a pregame speech with scores of recruits watching, that bodes well for the future.
"I don't know," Meyer said when asked about the impact of James' presence Saturday. "I just know that I love athletes that handle their business."
The Buckeyes keep doing that every week. Until someone can dethrone them, that's the only statement that matters.
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