Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, left, celebrates with Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller (5) at the end of a 35-23 win over Penn State in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa.
COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer has coached wire-to-wire powerhouses, teams that he knew would be capable of thumping every opponent in their path long before the season started.
The 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes are not one of them. Far from it.
No, this twisting odyssey toward perfection sprouted from the depths of Ohio State’s storied history — and that is why Meyer calls this year among the most rewarding in his career.
“I love coming to work,” Meyer said on Monday.
After swatting Penn State in their most complete effort of the season, the Buckeyes are 9-0, ranked sixth in the nation, and lasering their focus on the program’s first unbeaten season since 2002.
Who could have scripted this?
Nothing along the way suggested OSU would waltz into November as the only 9-0 team in the country.
The bowl ban Meyer compared to getting walloped by a two-by-four. The disjointed early spring practices he memorably labeled a “clown show.” The beaten-down defense that allowed 49 points to Indiana. The heart-thumping finishes.
“No, no, I don’t think you ever foresee this, where we were and how far we’ve come,” receivers coach Zach Smith said. “It’s a testament to the commitment of a group of guys that refuses to lose a game.”
Players see the trend continuing, with the events of last weekend redefining the possibilities. The Buckeyes left Penn State’s sold-out fortress with a 35-23 win, then learned their two toughest remaining rivals — Wisconsin and Michigan —had lost. Suddenly, their escape against Purdue from a week earlier seemed distant and the prospect of an undefeated season looked just around the corner.
Home games against Illinois (2-6, 0-4 Big Ten) and Michigan (5-3, 3-1) sandwich a Nov. 17 trip to Wisconsin (6-3, 3-2).
“Man, we could really go 12-0,” said receiver Devin Smith, noting the possibility first crossed his mind after OSU beat Michigan State and Nebraska in consecutive weeks. “That dream is still alive.’
Meyer will not look beyond the woeful Illini on Saturday, though he admits life is good in Columbus.
The first-year OSU coach was as upbeat Monday as reporters had seem him this season. He labeled quarterback Braxton Miller a Heisman Trophy candidate for the first time, called the Buckeyes’ victory over Penn State “our best team win,” and said he could not wait to spend his night calling recruits.
“Making that phone call, it's as much of the coach's tone, the energy in the phone call,” Meyer said. “You have to make those calls when something bad happens as well. But I’m not really into it. I can't wait to make those phone calls tonight. I’m really anxious to make those phone calls, and say, ‘Hey, this is Urban Meyer from Ohio State, and we're 9 0. … The conversation usually picks up from there.”
Although the Big Ten is at its lowest state in years —perhaps decades —Meyer believes he has a special team. Recall the ingredients to meet that threshold he laid out before the season: “Talent will get you about seven or eight wins, discipline will push it to nine, maybe, and leadership is where magic starts happening.”
“This is a special team,” Meyer said Monday. “They're fighting for each other. It's a refuse-to-lose-type atmosphere. We’ve seen teams that play really well, and they're blowing teams out all the time. We're not that type of team for I can give you 150 reasons why.
“However, we're a bunch of guys that work really hard, have a blue-collar approach, that show up every Tuesday and want to get better. You don't want anything else as a coach. There is some discipline and leadership taking place, and that's why it's pushed above the seven, eight wins.”
That leadership extends from a veteran defense that dismissed injury and ineptitude to hold Penn State to 36 rushing yards to the soft-spoken quarterback at the heart of it all. Miller leads the Big Ten in total offense (291.1 yards per game) and on Saturday became just the third quarterback in Big Ten history to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark. Miller, with 1,093 yards, joins Denard Robinson (2010, 2011) and Antwaan Randle El (2000).
“Do I believe he's a Heisman candidate? I do,” Meyer said. “I didn't say that before. But I do believe Braxton is a Heisman candidate. He has to play much better. However, just from sheer production of a team that's 9-0, it puts him in that category.”
The moral: Don’t tell Miller and OSU nothing is on the line this season.
EXTRA POINTS: Linebacker Ryan Shazier was named the Big Ten’s co-defensive player of the week for his game-changing performance at Penn State. The sophomore had a team-high eight tackles, two sacks, and returned an interception for the go-ahead touchdown. … Three Buckeyes were named semifinalists for national awards. Miller is one of 16 for the Maxwell Award (top player), junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is one of 16 for the Bednarik Award (top defensive player), and sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby is one of 15 for the Thorpe Award (top cornerback).
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