Today we look back. Forget the star-studded 2014 recruiting class. Forget the possibility of having someone not named Luke Fickell coaching the Ohio State defense next season. Today we have but one purpose, and that is to relive the peaks and valleys, twists and turns of another Buckeyes season in the books.
Let’s go back to where it all started. Actually, the first significant storyline of the Buckeyes season emerged before the team ever played a snap. Within days of each other, senior running back Carlos Hyde and junior All-American cornerback Bradley Roby found themselves in legal hot water. Initial concerns were extreme – some feared that Hyde could be kicked off the team. But, before long, charges were dropped or reduced in both cases, and the suspensions handed down by Urban Meyer were relatively light: one game for Roby and three for Hyde.
What is most interesting about those suspensions in retrospect is the relative levels of distress caused by news of the two players’ issues. The Carlos Hyde that entered this season bears almost no resemblance to the current El Guapo. When his suspension was announced, most regarded Hyde as a nice player, but not one whose loss would make or break the season due to Ohio State’s backfield depth. Now 1,521 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns (in just 11 games!) later, Hyde is the top-rated draft eligible running back by almost every media outlet and a player that Buckeyes fans will always recall fondly.
Roby, on the other hand, was considered the Buckeyes’ best defensive player. Fans wondered how Luke Fickell would replace the All-American. Their fears were proven correct as replacement Armani Reeves was torched in the season opener against Buffalo, but even Roby’s return couldn’t save this putrid secondary. Roby himself had a good, not great, season, but he failed to live up to the lofty expectations created by his 2012 All-America selection. Unfortunately, the last play many will remember about Roby’s time in Columbus will be the dropped interception in the third quarter against Michigan State that could have sealed an Ohio State berth in the BCS Championship Game.
Once the football actually began, the Buckeyes looked roughly like the juggernaut they were supposed to be, but hindsight allows us to recognize the weaknesses that would come to haunt this team lurking just beneath the surface. There were a few second half hiccups against Buffalo. In spite of a welcoming crowd in Berkeley, the secondary was exposed against pass-happy Cal. These small struggles were chalked up to a lack of focus in the face of inferior competition. Little did Buckeye Nation know how worried they should have been.
Of course, any retrospective on the 2013 Buckeyes would be woefully incomplete without a boatful of praise for the job that Kenny Guiton did deputizing for Braxton Miller after the Buckeyes’ Heisman-candidate quarterback left the first quarter of the San Diego State game in week two with a knee sprain. All the fifth-year senior did was complete 68.8% of his passes for 749 yards, 14 touchdowns, only two interceptions and a passer rating of 165.2 in what amounted to about three games worth of work this season. For good measure, he added 40 rushes for 330 yards (8.3-yard average) and five touchdowns. Not bad for a guy with just 25 career passes entering this season.
Most impressive, co-captain Guiton graciously stepped back upon Miller’s recovery. He was the consummate teammate all season long. We can only hope that some NFL team recognizes both his ability and his strong locker room presence. He would be a great asset on any roster.
After Kenny G’s smooth jazz hour, the Buckeyes entered conference play. Braxton Miller returned to the lineup with a magnificent performance against a very game Wisconsin team. The secondary was suspect in that game, particularly Roby in his matchup with Badgers stud Jared Abbrederis. It was a warning sign, but one that was easily written off as a game against a tough conference opponent who would have entered the game undefeated had they not been robbed by the officials in a two-point road loss to Arizona State.
In a development that would have even wider-reaching consequences, senior safety Christian Bryant broke his ankle against the Badgers. The loss of the player who Meyer would later call the best player on the entire roster would eventually prove to be the death blow for an already weak secondary.
The next week, Ohio State found themselves on the road against another seemingly tough opponent. Indeed, Northwestern put up a good fight, but the Buckeyes were able to close it out thanks to a stellar Hyde second half performance. Braxton struggled, but his backfield mate was there to pick the team up and ensure a victory. In what was at this point becoming a disturbing trend, the defense was again shaky.
The Carlos Hyde train kept rolling the next week in a classic too-close-for-comfort game against Iowa. He racked up 149 yards (106 in the second half) and two touchdowns (also both in the second half), including one of the most memorable plays of the Buckeyes’ season to bail the Buckeyes out after another questionable defensive performance against a subpar opposing offense.
The next two weeks brought a reprieve. Penn State, a team that was otherwise impressive, never threatened the Buckeyes in a 63-14 loss in Columbus. Purdue, the dregs of the Big Ten, was also little challenge the next week. Of course, the defense was simply getting our hopes up.
After an idle week, many thought the defense would continue its improved play against a 3-6 Illinois squad that entered the game losers of 19 straight Big Ten contests. Of course, the secondary allowed Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to throw for 288 yards and two touchdowns as Illinois ran up 35 points on the disappointing Buckeyes. A 246-yard, four touchdown performance from Hyde provided some window dressing as the Buckeyes pulled away late for a 60-35 victory.
Indiana went down easily. Somehow Ohio State, decrepit defense in tow, entered The Game undefeated against a reeling Michigan team. It turned out the Wolverines weren’t reeling that badly, as Al Borges drew up an incredible game plan that left Devin Gardner and the Michigan offense just a failed two-point conversion from pulling off one of the all-time great upsets in the history of the rivalry.
The arc of the Michigan game was familiar for Ohio State fans. The offense was effective on the ground as Hyde registered 226 yards (most in the history of the rivalry) and a touchdown, although he did lose a costly fumble that kept the Wolverines in the game. Miller added 153 yards rushing, but completed just six of his 15 passes – the latest in a string of disappointing passing lines.
The defense was horrible, of course, but if Buckeye Nation thought this was a low point, they were nowhere near ready for what the postseason held.
By now we’ve all heard enough about Ohio State’s failures in both the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl against Clemson, so I’ll spare you the gruesome details. But, in both games, the formula was the same.
The Buckeyes found themselves facing an opponent with talent unlike any they’d seen in the regular season, and their defense (which was not just depleted, but destroyed by injuries against Clemson) could not perform with the bright lights on. The offense was relatively effective, especially with the ball in Hyde’s hands, but for reasons that remain unexplained Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman failed to feed the beast with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
Braxton Miller provided a threat on the ground, but continued to struggle passing the ball. While he did throw for 234 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson, he also threw two absolutely backbreaking interceptions, including the one that sealed an Ohio State defeat. It was his first 200-plus yard passing performance since the Purdue game.
This was a deeply flawed Ohio State team. It’s certainly the worst defense I can remember watching since the beginning of the Tressel era. Nonetheless, it was a team that (when they had the ball) was consistently fun to watch. A record of 24-2 in the first two years of Urban Meyer’s tenure is nothing to sneeze at. It didn’t end how Buckeyes fans wanted – some would say how it was supposed to – but I take solace in the fact that Meyer’s teams don’t move backwards.
While players like Roby, Ryan Shazier, and (especially) Hyde will be sorely missed next season, there is another year worth of Meyer recruits coming up the pipeline to take their places.
A two-game losing streak surely has Meyer and his team brooding. I fully support our troops, but I pity the players on Navy’s roster, who will be the first to face the full fury of a pissed off Ohio State team on August 30th.
Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics Department