COLUMBUS — On the first play of Ohio State’s final drive against Michigan, a high snap recoiled sideways off the hands of leaping quarterback Braxton Miller.
One wrong bounce, the ball falls into enemy hands and the Wolverines have four minutes to navigate a short field for the winning touchdown. Instead, it ricocheted straight into the clutch of running back Carlos Hyde and a march toward history continued.
Stirring shades of their last national championship season in 2002, these unvanquished Buckeyes rarely made it easy. Yet no matter the straits in a season defined by close calls the endgame was the same.
Call the sixth unbeaten or untied year in 123 years of OSU football charmed, destiny, or meant to be. Just recognize the approximate 1,434 more concrete reasons for perfection too.
Here are a dozen of them this holiday season. Call it the Twelve Days of 12-0 — and why we might be having the same talk at this time next year.
1. Urban Meyer
Think about this: There may have been one college coach in the country with the chops to direct this sudden of a turnaround, and that one guy just happened to be on sabbatical … happened to grow up in an Ohio home that worshipped God, family, and Woody Hayes … and happened to be a former Buckeyes graduate assistant who felt an innate pull to return.
The folks who won this week’s Powerball have never seen such fortune. Meyer made fans either forget about the tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal that rocked the program or, in a twisted revisionist sort of way few would say aloud, make them glad it happened. Jim Tressel, 59, would have coached a few more years. If the 48-year-old Meyer remains healthy and engaged, OSU looks to ride pretty for the next decade.
2. The schedule
Let’s be honest, Ohio State barely faced a Misdemeanor’s Row of challengers. Does anyone think this team wins a top-10 showdown in Week 2? The Buckeyes warmed up with four nonconference opponents that went a combined 19-29 before traipsing into a Big Ten conference on an off year from previous off years. They played two currently ranked teams — No. 14 Nebraska and No. 21 Michigan — while their strength of schedule ranked 51st nationally, according to the Sagarin ratings.
If not for the bowl ban, it says here OSU still should have played Notre Dame for the national title. But its schedule would have made an easy case for the one-loss winner of the SEC title game to jump them.
The good/bad news for OSU: It ain’t getting any tougher next year. The Buckeyes face Buffalo, San Diego State, California, and Florida A&M before a Big Ten schedule that swaps out Michigan State and Nebraska for Northwestern and Iowa.
3. The seniors
The idea of a fire-drill exodus after the bowl ban was announced last December was puffed up. (Who was going to uproot so they could play their final game at the Snow Tire Bowl?) How the 21 seniors handled it was not. They had the power to undermine or galvanize, and chose the former. Especially the team’s bedrock leaders, defensive end John Simon and linebacker Zach Boren, whose dedication sent even Meyer peering into the mirror.
“I don’t want to say I don’t like what I saw, but it makes you really self-evaluate when you see what these kids do,” he said.
4. Braxton Miller
The quarterback was named Big Ten freshman of the year in 2011 and conference offensive player of the year this season. Is a Heisman Trophy the natural progression for 2013? Miller will be on every preseason short list after accounting for a school-record 3,110 yards of total offense.
All he needs now is a hip handle to rival presumptive 2012 Heisman winner Johnny “Football” Manziel of Texas A&M. It also wouldn’t hurt to improve his pocket awareness and accuracy to keep teams from selling out to stop the run. Still, he put OSU on his back in September and was the best player in the conference.
5. John Simon
He was the two-time captain, the player Meyer said he would name a son after, the guy who always put team before pain — and was presented the game ball the one time he physically couldn’t play against Michigan.
Yet look beyond his role as the team’s hero figure, and the guy could play. Simon’s four-sack farewell at Wisconsin gave him a league-high nine for the season and offered a final reminder why OSU will miss no player more next season.
6. Carlos Hyde andthe offensive line
Any concerns the no-huddle spread offense would abandon Ohio State’s power tradition faded in a hurry. Miller became the first 1,000-yard rusher in Meyer’s 11 seasons as a head coach while Hyde (970 rushing yards) represented OSU’s bruising ethos.
The 6-foot, 232-pound junior went from taking his frustration out on Twitter last season to dishing it out to other teams, running for 812 yards and 14 touchdowns over the last seven games. In all, behind a rebuilt offensive line anchored by junior left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort, Ohio State’s 242.2 rushing yards per game ranked fourth nationally among BCS teams.
“The ability to run the ball with a downhill mentality, I think we did that as good as any team in the country,” Meyer said. “And against teams that knew we were doing it.”
Expect more of the same in 2013. The entire backfield and four of five starting linemen return.
7. Ryan Shazier
The sophomore began the season as an extraordinary talent with ordinary game, too often out of control and out of position. By the end, he was a proper heir to the program’s lineage of All-American linebackers. Shazier’s sack and go-ahead interception return for a touchdown on back-to-back downs at Penn State last month highlighted an assembly-line reel of big plays and big hits.
Consider how he measures against Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. Shazier leads the likely Heisman finalist in tackles (115), sacks (five), and forced fumbles (three) while Te’o holds the big edge with seven interceptions. The Buckeyes’ only returning starter at linebacker is our way-too-early pick for the Big Ten’s 2013 preseason defensive player of the year.
8. The defensive line
Simon had plenty of help on a veteran front, most notably from junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. While he had just one sack, the 6-foot-3, 322-pound Hankins swallowed double teams as the immovable run-stuffer on the 14th-best rushing defense in the country (116 yards per game).
Expect Hankins to leave early as a projected top-20 pick in the NFL draft, which will clean out the entire starting line. But sophomore defensive end Michael Bennett and freshmen blue-chippers Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, and Tommy Schutt should keep the front a strength next season.
9. The cornerbacks
You’re forgiven for wondering if Travis Howard was burned a tad too often to merit first-team all-conference honors from the media. But the senior was good, and running mate Bradley Roby was better. Coaches trusted the Big Ten’s top tandem in man coverage, allowing the entire defense to be more aggressive.
Roby, a third-year sophomore, appears on the stay-or-go fence after finishing second nationally with 19 passes defended. The hunch here: he’ll be back.
10. The defensive coordinator
Remember when everybody, their mother, and the pizza dude wanted Luke Fickell out? Even Meyer had to wonder if this shotgun marriage was going to work after OSU allowed a combined 91 points in back-to-back weeks against Nebraska and Indiana.
“I had the same concerns that probably every person in America did watching our defense,” Meyer said.
But spurred by a shove from the boss, Fickell, co-coordinator Everett Withers, and the defensive staff responded. The Silver Bullets simultaneously became more forceful and sound, trading roles with the offense and carrying OSU the last five games of the season.
“Tough times bring out the best in real competitors,” Fickell said. “You say that about players, and you say that about coaches. I think we did a great job of rallying to come together and hashing through some things.”
11. The guys who switched positions
Reid Fragel spent his first three seasons as a tight end and Boren had started three-plus years at fullback. So, naturally, they closed their careers as perfect fits somewhere completely different. Fragel at right tackle proved the final piece to an ironman line that started all 12 games together while Boren provided stability at the Buckeyes’ most depleted position, switching to linebacker — his high school position — in Week 7.
12. Kenny Guiton
On second thought, maybe this should be listed first. The fourth-year junior backup quarterback left an indelible mark on the 2012 season in Week 8 when he took over for the hospitalized Miller and shepherded OSU to a stunning 29-22 overtime win over Purdue.
Trailing by eight points with 47 seconds and no timeouts, Guiton and the Buckeyes set off on a final drive from their own 39. The rest is, well, history. This team is not remembered among the all-time greats without Guiton.
A look ahead
Can the Buckeyes run the regular-season table again in 2013? Why not? The prediction here is 11-1 because we saw how many things had to go just right for OSU to be perfect this season. But with nine starters returning on offense, a core of defensive playmakers, and the Meyer Year 2 Phenomenon — his second season at Utah and Florida ended in perfection and a national title, respectively — a national title run is in play.
Ohio State’s Big Ten schedule leading into the year-end brush at Michigan features home games against Wisconsin, Iowa, Penn State, and Indiana, and trips to Northwestern, Purdue, and Illinois. Yeah, exactly. To play for a national title, OSU may need to not only win but rack up the style points doing it.
Contact David Briggs at:
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