MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — By the end of Ohio State’s 40-35 loss to Clemson in Friday night’s Orange Bowl, coach Urban Meyer was holding off tears, a hole had been punched into a locker-room whiteboard, and an unhinged fringe of scarlet-mad fans were spitting fire at Buckeyes players on Twitter.
Turns out, though, the sun rose Saturday — and the day only brightened from there.
OSU’s outlook for next season improved considerably with a report from Sports Illustrated that star quarterback Braxton Miller will forego the NFL draft to return for his senior year.
While the magazine reported junior All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier will leave early, Miller’s return means Ohio State would enter the 2014 season as one of the nation’s top teams despite facing outsized questions. The two-time reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year would again be an early Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
An OSU spokesman said he was unaware of Miller’s decision and could not confirm the report, which cited a source inside the program. Miller said Friday he would make his decision later this week after consulting with his coaches and parents.
Though Miller is projected as a potential mid-round selection in a deep class of quarterbacks, he dropped strong hints he was leaving early. He told reporters last month he believes he is ready for the NFL and is tired of enduring big hits.
Miller, who passed for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns this year and added 1,068 yards and 12 TDs on the ground, was sacked five times in an uneven performance Friday and later described his pain from a cracked rib and a bum right shoulder as a 9 on a 1-to-10 scale.
Asked which way he is leaning, Miller said, “I really don’t have any odds.”
If true, Miller’s return provides the Buckeyes with an upbeat ending to a gloomy week.
Once perspective settles in, one of the great runs in OSU history will earn its due respect. The Buckeyes (12-2) ran off a school-record 24 straight wins before falling to Michigan State in last month’s Big Ten championship game, then again Friday with a deluge of late turnovers.
Yet the wound remains fresh. Though Ohio State has the foundation to be an enduring national contender — another top-five recruiting class will sign next month — its championship window was seemingly propped wide open. Players endured the worst of those expectations in cyberspace.
“The fact that people Tweeting at me sayin’ all this negativity is crazy to me,” injured junior cornerback Bradley Roby posted on Twitter early Saturday morning, one of several messages players fired back at their detractors. “It makes me ashamed to even have played for y’all.”
Beyond Miller, the Buckeyes still enter the offseason with much up in the air, beginning with who will replace many of the cornerstones of the past two years. They must replace six seniors from a record-setting offense — including top rusher Carlos Hyde, top receiver Corey Brown, and four starters from one of the nation’s best offensive lines — and look to lose two juniors to the NFL
Roby, who sat Friday with a bone bruise to his knee, has already announced his intention to enter the draft.
Then there is the rest of defense, which is loaded with five-star underclassmen like standout freshman defensive end Joey Bosa but must show major progress to approach the OSU standard of old.
Without Roby and sacks leader Noah Spence — who will also be suspended the first two games of next season for an undisclosed Big Ten violation — the Buckeyes were torched for the third straight game Friday.
In fact, OSU lost for the first time in school history when scoring at least 35 points. The Buckeyes were previously 279-0-1 (they tied SMU 35-35 in 1978). Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd alone accounted for 505 yards of offense — including 378 yards through the air against the nation’s 111th-ranked pass defense.
“We’re not a championship caliber defense right now,” Meyer said. “Is it what we expect? No, we expect top-10 defense at Ohio State, a top-10 offense, and top-10 special teams, and I don’t believe we accomplished any of those. So we’ve just go out and recruit our tails off, got to develop players, and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”
That is the hope and — among players and coaches — the belief. OSU will lose a lot, and that was evident by Meyer’s emotions as he thanked 13 seniors in the locker room Friday.
Yet Miller’s return would answer the biggest question, and for all of the uncertainty, those who are leaving have left the program on firm ground.
“We were very resilient, hard workers, good people. I like to think that would be the legacy,” senior left tackle and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort said. “Obviously we dropped a few tough ones here at the end. We would have liked to go out on top, but I think we set a standard for these younger guys. I think they’re going to do great things. This program will stay on the rise with coach Meyer and some of the leaders coming back.”
TWO MORE COMMITS: The pipeline from Cleveland Glenville to Columbus continues to gush.
Teammates Marshon Lattimore — an athlete ranked by Rivals.com as the top prospect in Ohio — and four-star defensive back Erick Smith committed to the Buckeyes at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Saturday. They chose OSU over Alabama among others to become the 20th and 21st recruits in the Class of 2014.
The two friends were viewed as a package deal.
“We always had a dream of playing together,” Lattimore said during his announcement at the game. “It’s better to do it at home than anywhere else.”