Ohio State loses the Big Ten, and the Buckeye narrative grows bolder
The Buckeyes' loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship didn't do anything to silence the national criticism of Urban Meyer's 24-1 program.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It was repeated enough to seem like it was the usual, pre-installed coach speak.
"It sucks," Ohio State senior center Corey Linsley said.
"This sucks, for the seniors especially," freshman guard Pat Elflein said.
"It sucks to break the streak like this. It's going to suck for a while," linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
Elaboration will surely follow in the coming days, but before Ohio State could process their elimination from perfection and a national title, the stunning result of Saturday just... sucked.
All offseason, those in SEC country took aim at the Buckeyes' various perceived weaknesses. The schedule. The defense. And so on. That ramped up in the past week, as SEC fans (and Auburn's athletic director) worried the conference's title streak was about to end.
Those doubts were proven right early in the Big Ten Championship, then wrong as Ohio State stormed back, then more or less right when it mattered most.
Braxton Miller was stuffed on fourth-and-two with just under six minutes remaining. The Spartans then quickly drove the ball down to create a 10-point lead. Had Miller converted and the Buckeyes scored, the Big Ten's national title hope could've offered up a comeback drive against Mark Dantonio's defense. Overcoming the only other conference unit boasting any kind of national attention would've given the Buckeyes the bona fides their record hadn't.
"There were a lot of things I was upset about tonight, but to sell out on that play, I felt like everyone was selling out to get that [conversion] and didn't happen," Linsley said.
Michigan State opened with 17 tricky, unanswered points, including a 72-yard touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Keith Mumphrey and a 33-yarder to Tony Lippett both benefiting from uncharacteristic coverage breaks from the Buckeyes. After the OSU tandem of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde scored 24 unanswered points, the Buckeyes were still only allowing 3.4 yards a play from MSU absent the Spartans' two touchdowns.
Miller’s six-yard touchdown rush late in the third quarter felt like the start of a statement for OSU. He faked a read-option keeper to the right and, flat-footed, bolted left, outrunning any available defender and looking like the most talented player on either team.
"We really felt like we could run the ball the way we wanted to," Hyde said.
The lead-gaining drive was as powerful a statement Miller and Hyde could make. Meyer’s offense, the league’s best, jammed it down the throat of the nation’s best defense. And even after spotting MSU 17 largely due to broken downfield coverage, the Buckeye defense tackled efficiently in the open field.
For a second, it was a validation the quality of the Big Ten's maligned depth. Sparty was just good enough to give a good game on national TV, but now here came the Buckeyes, ready for Pasadena and Florida State.
"Maybe that was on our minds," Linsley said when asked if OSU assumed they were taking over after 24 unanswered points.
"Maybe we just expected everything to go our way, but we certainly didn't play that way," he said.
But on MSU's first play on the ensuing drive, Jeremy Langford would break a 34-yard rush that halted that inevitable feeling Ohio State had cast in so many of their 24 consecutive wins.
Instead Michigan State bookended the night with another 17 points and beat the Buckeyes for the first time under Urban Meyer.
"You know it's going to haunt all of us, I imagine, for a little while," Meyer said.
"They knew what to do and when to do it," Linsley said after the game, standing in front of a crowd of reporters with a bloody cut across the bridge of his nose.
In Michigan State's final 17 points, all the concerns surrounding 2013 Ohio State came to life, namely a defense that had steadily become unreliable down the stretch and shaky pass play from Miller (only eight of 21 for 109 yards and a touchdown). Ohio State gave up 438 yards to a Spartans offense that had managed only 294 against Purdue.
For all the refinement of the Ohio State program, its players were uncharacteristically honest after the defeat, arguably because it's somewhat impossible to prepare players for the concept of defeat after a certain amount of time without it.
"We came out and hyped them up too much, I thought," Linsley said. "Like we were coming out here and playing the [Chicago] Bears or something."
Multiple players noted that after Meyer spoke post-game about immediately moving past the loss, a group of seniors spoke about the importance of not losing the game twice, a legitimate concern considering the bulk of these starters haven't coped with a loss in two years, or ever.
"Our weaknesses are pretty obvious now, and it's up to us to fix them to maintain our legacy," Linsley said.
While Michigan State danced through the post-game ceremony, the no-name underdogs who wrecked the BCS title picture, the slow creep of a year-long criticism of Ohio State's strength of schedule finally sunk in on the Buckeyes. The last question Shazier fielded was aimed here, and the exhausted player knew it immediately. Was MSU, a one-loss team absolutely no poll or pundit is considering for the national title, the best team the Buckeyes had seen all year?
"Yeah. Yeah, they were probably the best team we'd seen in the last two years," Shazier said quickly.
And although Shazier didn't intend it, his comment validated what Ohio State had secretly feared all this time.
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