He could not have known how sweet it would taste.
As the fourth-ranked Buckeyes prepared to take their place alongside the program’s giants in the final minutes of a 26-21 win over No. 20 Michigan on Saturday, the first-year OSU coach peeled back his stoic front.
“I kind of lost it on the sideline there,” he said. “Got to keep more composure. In the coaching manual, I think it’s chapter 13. It says keep it cool. I just lost it.”
And to think: That was before Meyer got the requisite icy Gatorade shower. Before an ocean of bobbing fans with index fingers thrust skyward engulfed the field. Before the coach who grew up with this rivalry high-fived students as he waded through the morass to sing the alma mater with a group of 21 seniors for whom he said statues should be erected.
“What an awesome ride,” junior left tackle Jack Mewhort said.
For Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten), the victory was rarely pretty but ultimately provided the perfect finish to a perfect season.
Before a crowd of 105,899 — an Ohio Stadium record for a Michigan game — a stubborn, big-play defense and the bruising running of Carlos Hyde ultimately proved too much for a Michigan team looking for its first victory in Columbus since 2000.
Playing without senior defensive end and undisputed team leader John Simon, who missed the game with a knee injury suffered in last weekend’s win at Wisconsin, OSU needed just two field goals to overcome a 21-20 halftime deficit.
In the second half, the Buckeyes bullied Michigan’s two-headed quarterback monster of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson. They not once allowed the Wolverines (8-4, 6-2) to foray past the 50-yard line, held the visitors to 60 yards of net offense, and forced three of their four turnovers.
The final one — safety C.J. Barnett’s interception of Gardner at the Michigan 48 with 4:50 remaining — allowed OSU to turn to Hyde to drain the clock. Hyde gained two first downs — the first coming on a third-and-seven 13-yard run — to cap a 146-yard rushing day that launched what was sure to be an all-night party in Columbus.
"This is as good as it gets," Meyer said.
“The whole theme this week is to go where the air is rare,” he added. “The last door is a big one. Open it, kick it open, do what you have to do to get through that door. But once you’re in there, [the air] smells different, it tastes and looks different. I’m hoping the guys get that taste and they want to do it again.”
Ohio State’s place in history appeared in doubt early, the Buckeyes displaying all the solidity of water in the first half. They had six first-half penalties and looked lost against Robinson and Gardner, who shared duties at quarterback — Robinson as the runner, Gardner the passer.
Gardner, who completed 11 of 20 passes for 171 yards, took advantage of a blown coverage on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree, and Robinson ran for a 67-yard score just before the half that put Michigan ahead 21-17.
But OSU responded with a simple plan for the second half.
“Stop the quarterback run,” Meyer said. “That’s the input I had. Probably the same thing 107,000 people said as well.”
Momentum swayed for good back toward OSU when Michigan gambled on fourth-and-2 at its own 48 on its first drive of the second half. Sophomore Ryan Shazier stuffed Robinson for a two-yard loss, setting up a 28-yard go-ahead field goal by Drew Basil.
The rest of the afternoon proved just as ugly for Michigan and just enough for Ohio State, which also relied on a strong effort from Miller. The sophomore completed 14 of 18 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 57 yards on 20 carries. (Miller gained 108 yards but lost 51.)
Though with nowhere to go from here, Miller said, "you couldn’t ask for anything better."
“The great thing about this entire season is that I’m not sure that we’ve had a greater team season,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Not one side is stellar every time. It was truly one of the years. I haven’t been doing this a whole long time, but I can’t remember one that was a greater team season. There was somebody else every time, and I’m not just saying that because it’s right now. This team is unbelievable.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.com.