Ohio State Football: When 24-0 becomes 24-1

So nearly a week has passed since Ohio State lost 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. The end of football season always comes about suddenly – like ejecting from a plane, it brings a floating feeling before landing somewhere that never feels quite as familiar as it should upon returning to ground level. Even though it was predestined to happen this week if not sooner, it still brings a shock to the system. 

I like to give life a few days to get back to normal, but then again sometimes I wonder if football season is the norm and the rest is just passing time.
What we learned last week: How hollow 24-0 can be, at least when it becomes 24-1.

Forgive me if this seems overly negative, but it is a hard conclusion to avoid when stepping back to assess the situation. 20131213-093830.jpg

The Buckeyes won all their games for two regular seasons, but they have no national championships or even Big Ten championships to show for it.

Yes, they can claim two of the three Leaders Division titles of all time (I think there’s even a trophy for that), but has anyone ever considered those anything more than consolation prizes?

The past two seasons weren’t all for naught, of course.

When Urban Meyer officially took over in January 2012, Ohio State had lost four consecutive games, after all, and the Buckeyes’ reputation was in a state of disrepair.

Many felt it wouldn’t take a miracle to fix the program, but there was certainly work to do.

The year under the radar was probably a good one for Meyer and the program. The coach took a flawed team and won a flawed league without anyone looking too closely to see what the 2012 Buckeyes were and were not particularly good at doing.

Then came 2013, a season in which expectations and critics returned. That’s part of the deal, of course, and a welcome trade in the long run. You play to win the games, after all, and while team building is nice, eventually everyone wants to be able to prove they are the best there is at what they do.

Ohio State will have to wait at least another season for the chance to do that, but that might not be all bad.

Perhaps this is counter to the previous point, but competing at the highest level can have its downside for a team that isn’t ready. The 2007 Buckeyes proved that as a team that had some clear flaws backed into the national championship game – and rightfully so given the national landscape of college football that season – and lost decisively. In the long run, Ohio State probably would have been better off just going to the Capital One Bowl that year to face a team it had a better shot at beating (Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators, ironically). Even a loss there would have fallen under the radar, generally ignored by the national media and probably easily forgotten by fans on both sides.

I had maintained the thought a bowl break could provide time for the biggest flaws this Ohio State team had – defensive execution and to a lesser extent scheme – could be worked on, but the last couple of weeks leave one feeling that was unlikely.

So what about 24-0, anyway? It restored the program to the national stage and changed the conversation from the NCAA scandal that eventually led to Meyer’s arrival on the scene.

The winning streak came with new faces and a new feeling even if it ended with one, to. That would be losing a game with the Big Ten title on the line, something not truly seen done by an Ohio State team since the 2003 Michigan game.

Yes, a full decade passed between Buckeye losses in Big Ten championship games of either the official or de facto variety. If there was anything Jim Tressel could do, it was dominate conference foes at the most crucial times. Meyer is expected to do that while accomplishing even more, but that will have to wait until at least year three.

So the ultimate lesson of last week was the flaws of the 2013 Buckeyes were indeed fatal. There were defensive breakdowns and occasional offensive regressions that occurred off and on all year, and Ohio State could escape them for only so long.

The defense’s final collapse was frankly stunning – absolute, decisive and all-encompassing. Not only did the Buckeyes blow coverages in the secondary throughout the game, they also failed to even prevent the Spartans from icing the game on the ground. That they could at least do the latter shouldn’t have even been in question.

Offensively, the failure was more familiar. While the play calling left a bit to be desired, the Buckeyes were a couple of execution issues away from turning a good day (considering the level of competition) into a great one. That is something that happens, particularly to a good offense. Good offenses more often get stymied than good defenses get torched because it is easier for an offense to stop itself. The best teams find a way to execute when the stakes are highest, and that did not happen for the Buckeyes in Indianapolis.

 

What we can expect to learn next: So, there’s one more game to this season… but really it’s time to start over.

We’ll consider the matchups and the meaning of the Orange Bowl in coming weeks. How this team rebuilds is a much more interesting storyline for both December and beyond.

With no bowl last season and a lame duck group preparing for the Gator Bowl two years ago, it’s hard to remember what the mindset even is for this type of game.

Heck, the year before that most of the lead up to the Sugar Bowl was about the NCAA scandal that broke in December, so we essentially have to go back to 2009 for a “normal” postseason. That was a young team looking to make a statement for the following season, plus the Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl and that Oregon team offered an appealing matchup.

Clemson offers a chance for the Buckeyes to enhance their national profile since that vacated Sugar Bowl against Arkansas is the last significant out-of-conference win for Ohio State. Obviously more chances to practice are good for any team, too.

The challenge should appeal to the defense, but how many of the culprits for struggles will be back next season? A dominant performance by the defensive line could resonate with those filling out preseason ballots next summer, and I’m sure the Ohio State offense wants a chance to redeem itself and prove it can put up points outside the Big Ten, too.

But like I said, there’s plenty of time to worry about that as we get closer to the day of the game.

For now it’s time to get back to reality, or something like it anyway.

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