COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Judging from the postgame mood in the Ohio State locker room, it would be easy to think that No. 4 Ohio State had just had its dreams of an unbeaten season smashed.
Instead, the Buckeyes won an entertaining and competitive game 31-24 before a rowdy partisan crowd of 105,826.
But there were several reasons for the somber and sober feelings wafting in the air.
|OHIO STATE 31, WISCONSIN 24|
|Recap Box Score Highlights|
Just before he stepped before reporters, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer found out that co-captain and starting safety Christian Bryant had broken an ankle on one of the final plays.
''Our leader is in an ambulance right now going to the hospital to have surgery on his leg,'' Meyer said, fighting his emotions. ''There's no doubt about if he is one of our leaders. And he's just devastated.''
So were the Buckeyes. Bryant is their fourth-leading tackler and a spirited, demonstrative beacon in the secondary. Now the senior will be out for several weeks -- possibly the rest of the season -- pending further analysis by team doctors.
''That's my partner, man,'' said his running mate at safety, C.J. Barnett. ''We don't expect a drop off [in talent with the replacement] but it's huge on the leadership part. He's like a pit bull out there.''
Meyer also wondered who would pick up the emotional slack for Bryant.
Wide receiver Devin Smith was like many Ohio State players who were still in a state of shock after Barnett was helped off the field after the 60th of Wisconsin's 61 offensive plays. Bryant was hurt when he made contact with another player while pursuing a Badgers receiver.
''Everyone's hurt about it,'' Smith said of Barnett's injury. ''Especially me because he's my cousin. I'm very tight with him. He's worked his tail off and just wanted to have a great season.''
Bryant's most likely replacement is sophomore Ron Tanner or senior Corey ''Pittsburgh'' Brown.
As if that weren't enough, there were other reasons why the celebration was muted.
The game, a draining slugfest between two evenly matched teams, ended not long before midnight. No one could blame them if the Buckeyes were worn out after a long, emotional day.
Then there was the looming awareness for the Buckeyes that even though they had just proved themselves, now they have to do it all over again a week later.
They get another stiff test on Saturday when they travel to play No. 16 Northwestern in yet another primetime showdown.
''We got to keep moving forward and keep everybody locked in on the target,'' Meyer said. ''And it's going to be a tough target again next week.''
Ohio State will step into a packed Ryan Field to meet a Northwestern (4-0) team playing its first Big Ten game on its homecoming. Pat Fitzgerald, a former defensive star for the Wildcats, is in his eighth season as head coach at his alma mater.
They are striving to be 5-0 for the second consecutive year. Yet they're still seeking a headline-grabbing win to mark the program's ascension to the national stage.
Oh, and while Ohio State was going toe-to-toe with physical Wisconsin, Northwestern had a bye week.
After a 35-21 home win on Sept. 21 against Maine, Fitzgerald already had his eyes fixed on the next hurdle for his program.
''I think we've been a part of a lot of games that are important,'' he said. ''This is the first opportunity to play Big Ten football so that's why it's important.''
The Buckeyes carry the nation's longest winning streak, 17 games, into Evanston, Ill. They've become used to having teams want to make a name for themselves by ending it.
''The target's big,'' offensive lineman Andrew Norwell said. ''There's no letting go of the throttle.''