In retrospect, Ohio State has had this coming for awhile now. By that I mean a season where the deep-seated problems were dragged into the harsh light of day. It just so happens that it occurred in such a way that no amount of rationalizing among the Buckeye faithful could excuse those problems. The Bucks have gotten a bit of a free pass since the trading of little gold pants for crummy tattoos derailed the Tressell era (though if you ask a Michigan fan the trade was for the souls of wee children, not ink). First, there was the year under Fickell, when the Buckeyes simply made do. Little criticism was leveled at the scrappy young guy holding it all together. Then came the first year under Meyer, beset by sanctions. The praise flowed mightily for all he did in spite of a tough situation. Twelve-and-0, for pete's sake! Would-be title contenders! Then, finally, the curtain was thrown back in 2013 and the Buckeyes were revealed to be something more mortal and less Great and Powerful Wizard than we'd all hoped.
As I prepared to exhume the 2013 season for one final look, it became ever more apparent to me that the Buckeye experience of the past year can be best summed up in two words: Brigitte Nielsen. Horrific though it may be to those of you over 30, the arc of Ms. Nielsen's rather interesting life is a better metaphor for the Buckeyes than any of us would like. A promising start, a rocky but enviable rise to stardom, and then a slow, inexorable slide toward crushing disappointment and depressing circumstances. Urban Meyer ate Papa John's in a tunnel, Brigitte dated Flavor Flav. The yin and yang of life, my friends. Let's get to it.
Where We Started
This was the year. In terms of a beginning, no other team in the country came into the 2013 campaign on the heels of a perfect season. That fact alone set the stage for all that was to follow, both good and bad. The Buckeyes were the class of the B1G. There were lingering questions and criticisms, of course. Strength of schedule. Beginner's luck. The usual.
Urban Meyer was entering what would be only his second season as the coach of the Buckeyes. No bowl bans this year, no, no. Just a sweet, sweet run through the lurching, zombie-like corpses of B1G competition and then the maestro would have the Buckeyes knock the cheese grits out of some SEC team in the championship. Twelve-and-0? Ha! Try 26-and-0! Might as well ship that crystal football to Columbus to beat the rush.
It wasn't long until the trouble started, and it started where it usually does: at the nexus of booze and free time. Carlos Hyde was accused of slapping a woman at a Columbus bar, and rumors circulated that he had been dismissed from the team (let that scenario sink in for a second). In time, a grainy video would bear out some version of events in which he did not slap the accuser, but Meyer held firm to a three-game suspension. All-star cornerback Bradley Roby chipped in with a bar scrape that earned him a game on the pine. The wheels weren't coming off the cart just yet, but if you were looking for a dead albatross to plop onto the deck of the good ship Meyer, that was it.
The Non-Conference Cupcake Bar
As has become the custom in FBS football, the non-conference schedule was chewy on the edges and mushy in the middle. The opening tilt against Buffalo wasn't as lopsided as it should have been, but for a first outing it was decent enough. Round two was the fateful San Diego State game, which saw Braxton Miller go down with a sprained knee in the second quarter. No matter. The "old right-hander" Kenny Guiton filled the void without missing a beat. Kenny reprised his heroics the following week by setting the Buckeye single-game TD record in a 52-point romp at Cal. Then the G-Man iced the cake by putting FCS punchline Florida A&M out of its misery so thoroughly that Twitter genius and third-string QB Cardale Jones got to see what Ohio Stadium looks like from the middle. If stud bull Braxton was going to be on the pine, this was the time for it to happen. Warm-up complete.
Enter the B1G
A second helping of cupcakes? Yes, please. After all, the B1G was just so darn weak and no one had the weapons to take on the Meyer/Miller Machine. Right? RIGHT?! Apparently, Wisconsin didn't get the memo, as they took Ohio State to the wire and actually outproduced the Buckeyes on offense by four yards. The Buckeyes kept the Badger backfield largely in check, but Wisconsin hung around long enough to make a furious late-game rally. Ohio State couldn't get the late first down it needed to hold onto the ball after recovering the onside kick, and ultimately surrendered the pigskin to Wisconsin for one last gasp. While the Badgers couldn't get a first down, that final series saw defensive captain and senior Christian Bryant break his foot and lose his last shot at college ball. A falcon-punch to the throat of the Buckeye secondary.
Northwestern picked up right where Buckingham U. Badger left off, leveraging a dual quarterback attack that put the Buckeyes down seven points at the half, and had them trailing by 10 in the third quarter. Meyer and company finally remembered that Carlos Hyde could run the ball like a garbage truck through a fruit stand, and rode his draft horse legs to a narrow victory. Once again, the Buckeyes survived a furious late-game rally to beat the final ranked opponent on their regular season schedule. If you're looking for a Brigitte Nielsen analog, consider this humbling two-game stretch her performance opposite Stallone in Cobra-not terrible, but definitely an omen of things to come.
The final strike in the three-punch combination that opened B1G play came in the form of Kirk Ferentz's Iowa Hawkeyes. Preseason polls didn't even show a team that rhymed with Iowa, and the boys from Iowa City limped into the game with 2 losses on the books. Naturally, it went just as you'd expect for the mighty Buckeyes against an unranked Iowa squad (groan). Ohio State had their nose bloodied starting with the coin toss and yet again trailed at the half. Only through broken plays and overpowering athleticism did they manage to take the lead in the 4th quarter, mostly thanks to #34 piling up 106 yards in the second half alone. Hyde's power running and Miller's ability to turn you-know-what into Shinola when the pocket collapses kept the Buckeyes afloat week after week, but just barely. Something was starting to smell rotten in the state of Denmark.
The Blah Before the Storm
If B1G play was supposed to be the easy route to the BCS title, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa weren't the droids you were looking for. Thank the good Lord for Illinois, Penn State, and Indiana. Thank him twice for Purdue. The four tilts against the B1G's foundering ships were so bad they verged on humorous, especially if you're the type who recognized the Sopranos as the greatest dark comedy of our generation. While it hardly seems worthwhile to talk about a quartet of games in which the Buckeyes outscored their opponents 221-63, one thing became increasingly clear. Amidst the displays of Buckeye offensive supremacy sat one glaring fact: anyone could throw the ball on the Buckeyes (and by anyone, I mean even a Pop Warner team and possibly Devin Gardner).
The Crumbling Empire Strikes Back
Anyone in the Buckeye sphere of fandom who remembers the 1990s is beset by a wave of nausea at the mere thought of a top-ranked, undefeated Ohio State team playing Michigan. This condition is called Cooperitis, and it cannot be cured-only managed. To recap this game would be like telling you the Christmas story as though you'd never heard it. The fight. The two-finger salute. The see-saw scoring. You've heard it all a dozen times, and Tyvis Powell's game-saving interception of Devin Gardner's two-point conversion toss was the shot heard round the B1G, in a very big and bad way. The Michigan team that ran for -48 yards-enroute to only 189 yards total-against Michigan State ground out 603 yards against the Buckeye defense. Human momentum-killer Devin Gardner threw four touchdowns. Any lingering faith that Buckeye fans in the dumpster fire of a secondary was erased. The Jim Heacock Silver Bullet Defense days were over, for sure, and the worst was yet to come.
B1G Game, B1G Life, B1G Flop
It's a crazy, mixed-up world where Michigan State is the bigger dog than Michigan for any length of time, and the B1G Championship game gave Sparty a chance to put an exclamation point on a wholly unexpected season of excellence and revenge. The story of the B1GCG was, for most Buckeye fans, the only story that mattered all season, because it ended the fairytale. With a 24-game win streak on the line, a trip to the BCS National Championship on the line, and a chance to quiet the constant chorus of OSU detractors from coast to coast on the line, the Buckeyes blew it. Though the Braxton/Carlos duo combined for 273 yards rushing, Miller was a dreadful 8-for-21 passing on the night. Sparty signal-caller Connor Cook-long-derided by many as a journeyman apprentice at the QB position-lit the Buckeyes up for 301 yards and 3 TDs.
As was so often the case this season, the biggest play of the night came from the MSU defense. Sparty stuffed Miller on a 4th-and-1 late in the game to end any Buckeye hopes of yet another rally. In retrospect, that final shot seemed a fitting end to a season whose promise was so great at the outset but delivered so much frustration. In yet another critical 4th quarter situation, OC Tom Herman seemed to forget that Carlos Hyde was on the team. That same playbook vanishing act happened at Wisconsin, at Northwestern, and finally in Indianapolis. In each case, Braxton Miller was expected to carry the hopes and dreams of the Ohio State faithful on his back-which is the story of the season in more ways than one.
Bienvenidos a Miami
I won't even touch on the Orange Bowl. Those wounds are too fresh. Maybe someday. In the meantime, if you missed it, just take all the problems from the B1GCG, knock Braxton around a bit, and turn the temperature up to "tropical." Boom. Instant Orange Bowl.
What does it all mean, Brigitte?
Why trouble ourselves with the recap of such a long and trying season? What have we learned? I hope, for all of our respective sanities, that the reality of the 2013 Buckeyes is clear. The Buckeyes didn't miss out on their title shot. They never had a shot. Not in the first game, and not in the last. At no point in the latter half of the 24-game win streak did the Buckeyes dominate a competent opponent. Not once. Every matchup with a halfway decent team left more questions than answers.
To endure a season so analogous with the life story of an erstwhile starlet and four-time divorcee is a special misery. Start off hot, look good in some roles that didn't ask much of you, and then follow bad performances with worse decisions until you've gone from being Ivan Drago's wife to doing Italian TV miniseries and VH1 reality shows. It's a cruel world, I think Brigitte would agree. At this point, so would Urban. I'm not sure even he knows how the season unraveled so thoroughly. He has a long winter to figure it out.
Four Takeaways for 2014:
1. Discipline. Contrary to his reputation from Florida, Meyer did not take poor behavior lightly. Nonetheless, Ohio State spent decades running a very clean program. A few bad eggs in the last ten years have shaken that reputation to core. Urban needs to go above and beyond to keep players out of trouble, both for the good of the school and for his own winning potential. Talent on the bench isn't talent.
2. Miller is staying, and things have got to change. Braxton Miller is an outrageous athletic talent, and his playmaking abilities have masked real issues in play calling and defense. In his final season as a Buckeye, he'll need to develop serious passing skills to be an NFL prospect, and I don't know that he has it in him. With Hyde gone, Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliot will have to step up in a big way. The Braxton Miller we see next year needs to be vastly better and vastly different from the one we saw this year unless he wants to be the next Troy Smith.
3. Defense. Fickell is not a talented coordinator. With Vrabel gone to the Texans and Everett Withers trying his hand at head coaching, the Buckeyes have some serious recruiting/coaching gaps on the defensive staff. Urban headed to the AFCA conference this week in the Hell's Suburb (Indianapolis) with the need to hire a fantastic coordinator. Anything less, and anemic defense threatens to become a hallmark of his time at OSU. Reports surfaced yesterday that he may have hired Arkansas' DC and Penn State's DL coach. Cautious pessimism is permitted. (Arkansas? Really?! I know ol' boy came from Wisconsin with Bert but...zero SEC wins is zero SEC wins, bro.)
4. Things in the land of Carmen Ohio and horseshoe stadiums are still very, very good. We should all be thankful for that.