The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer said he went to bed Saturday night feeling terrible about Ohio State's tension-wracked win over Alabama-Birmingham, and his mood did not improve as he watched tape of the game the next morning.
The coach had to find a way to lift his spirits as he began to prepare for the Buckeyes' trip to No. 20 Michigan State.
"I wasn't about to have lunch after what I saw," Meyer said.
To ease his mind, he charged a graduate assistant with turning a replay of the 29-15 win into a highlight reel of sorts. It was close to a burn-the-tape contest, but not quite.
"I said, ‘Put together two, three, four good drives for me,'?" Meyer said.
Lunch would be served, after all. Meyer watched the cut-ups and thought, "Okay, we do get it," then decided only those clips would be shown in the team's usually lengthy film session later that day.
"I want these guys with a great taste in their mouth to get ready to go play a big-time college football game," he said.
The No. 14 Buckeyes (4-0) are ready to turn the page in a much-anticipated Big Ten opener that will go a long way in shaping expectations for the season.
For better or worse, nothing appears off the table for this enigmatic bunch.
Through four games, OSU has both kindled the towering expectations accompanying Meyer's arrival and looked very much the part of an inexperienced team that went 6-7 last season.
Take the last two games, where the Buckeyes had ill-timed gaffes, allowed a combined 915 yards to California and UAB, and were a stoppable force for long stretches on offense. Yet they at times exploded, fashioning three quick-strike touchdown drives in a span of less than six minutes against the Blazers.
"I know we're Ohio State and there's all kinds of expectations here," Meyer said. "I still am not giving up. I think by the end of the year, this might be a hell of a football team. I mean, it might be sooner than that."
In a conference that has become a national punchline this season, the Buckeyes believe they can be top dog. Though ineligible for postseason play, Meyer reminded his players this week that OSU can officially be recognized as Leaders Division champions.
"Are we playing for something?" he said. "You're darned right we are."
Ohio State begins league play with one of its stiffest tests in East Lansing, where it has not lost since 1999. The Spartans (3-1) return most of the defense that led their 10-7 win over OSU last year and boasts tailback Le'Veon Bell, a 244-pound Columbus native ranked third nationally with 153 rushing yards per game.
After four humdrum nonconference games, though, players embrace the new chapter.
"Now we all have the mentality going into this week that it's going to be a big game, which we haven't had the first four weeks," center Corey Linsley said. "It's going to be a great opportunity to have everybody on the same page to show the country what we can do."
Linsley said watching the good from the UAB game buoyed his morale.
"Everybody left the game feeling like, ‘Man how did that just happen? How did we not just absolutely dominate every aspect of the game?'?" Linsley said. "After seeing that, we knew we could have, and this was how we do it. That was the best thing for us."
The renewed excitement translated to the practice fields. The Buckeyes were ready to bring on the Big Ten.
"You could feel it at practice,'' wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. "It's a whole different mentality around here. I can't really explain what it is. It just feels different.''
EXTRA POINTS: The Buckeyes could be at full strength against MSU. All four starters who sat against UAB — cornerback Bradley Roby, safety C.J. Barnett, running back Carlos Hyde, and defensive lineman Michael Bennett — are on course to play Saturday. Meyer listed Roby (shoulder) and Barnett (ankle) as "probable" and Hyde, who strained his MCL in the second game of the season, as "very probable." Bennett, who aggravated a groin injury minutes before the opener and has not played since, is also set to return. ... Michigan State said no players or assistant coaches will speak to the media this week. Coach Mark Dantonio, who had a contentious three-minute press conference after a 23-7 win over Eastern Michigan, also instituted a media blackout leading up to the Ohio State and Iowa games last season.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.