The Toledo Blade
COLUMBUS — And so it begins for this suddenly besieged Ohio State football team.
How do the Buckeyes seal the fissures of dysfunction exposed in their 17-14 loss to Michigan State and rally for Saturday’s trip to Ann Arbor?
“You don’t have any other response,” senior linebacker Joshua Perry said. “If you don’t, then we’re just a phony team.”
That’s the unexpected crossroads confronting the Buckeyes (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten), who sank to No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll and — after beginning the season as a 16-point favorite over Michigan — are now a 2½-point underdog against the 12th-ranked Wolverines (9-2, 6-1).
After a 10-week binge of unranked opponents, Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak and a veneer of invincibility shattered in its first big test of the season.
It is never instructive to overreact to one game. Every team loses, and every Buckeyes loss touches off a nuclear meltdown in Columbus. Time will lend perspective, and these first four seasons with Urban Meyer — during which Ohio State is 48-4 — will be remembered among the gilded eras in school history.
But this was no ordinary defeat on Saturday.
As Ohio State’s hopes of a repeat national championship likely blew away on a rainy, wind-swept afternoon, the Buckeyes turned on each other, not Michigan State.
An expected offense for the ages proved just that — except for the wrong reasons, leaving an Ohio Stadium record crowd of 108,975 yearning for the explosive days of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust rather than three-and-out-and-a-storm-of-boos.
With the Spartans overcrowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run, quarterback J.T. Barrett could not exploit their 86th-ranked passing defense. He completed 9 of 16 passes for 46 yards.
How bad were the Buckeyes? By a wide margin, their 132 yards and five first downs marked the worst performance by a Meyer-coached team — a stretch of 14 seasons dating to his time at Bowling Green State University. The previous standard for futility was Florida’s 206-yard day in a 21-17 loss to Louisiana State in 2005.
As if an apparently broken offense is not enough, Meyer will face questions in his news conference today about the state of the locker room.
After the game, several players headed up the tunnel before the team finished singing the alma mater, while — fairly or not — running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Cardale Jones declaring their intentions to turn pro cast a picture of a team with one foot out the door. (The announcements were a formality, but two juniors making them a week before the Michigan game was unprecedented.)
That’s not to mention Elliott’s postgame evisceration of the play-calling. This was not a second-string malcontent lobbing criticism at the coaches, but a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the most respected leaders — a Meyer favorite. Elliott, whose streak of 100-yard rushing games ended at 15, called his 12-carry, 33-yard day a “bad, bad dream.”
“We weren’t put in the right position to win this game,” he said.
Whether the Buckeyes can recalibrate and unify by Saturday will go a long way in defining their season.
“I challenged the leaders and challenged our coaches that, to run out of the tunnel first when you’re on a 23-game win streak, that doesn’t take a whole lot of courage to do that. It takes a lot of courage to show up Sunday ready to go beat a good team up north,” Meyer said.
The only three players who spoke to reporters Saturday — Elliott, Barrett, and Perry — all said Ohio State will be ready.
The Buckeyes’ loss took some shine off the regular-season finale. But it is still The Game, and the anticipated first meeting between Meyer and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is also the first top-15 matchup in the series since top-ranked Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39 in 2006.
Besides, Ohio State’s obituary remains unwritten. If the Buckeyes beat Michigan at noon and Michigan State (10-1, 6-1) falls to Penn State at 3:30 p.m. in East Lansing, Mich., OSU will win the Big Ten East and head to the league championship game with a possible playoff berth on the line.
Ohio State fans no doubt recall 2007. The top-ranked Buckeyes lost to Illinois the week before the Michigan game, falling to No. 7 in the polls and out of the national title picture. Then chaos reigned elsewhere, and Ohio State climbed back to No. 1 to play LSU in the BCS national title game.
“Oh, boy,” Meyer said. “We’ve just got to get a couple of first downs and start finding a way to complete a pass and beat our rival. No disrespect, but that’s certainly not any conversation. You’re right, a lot of things happen, but we’ve got to fix some obvious problems.”
RATINGS BONANZA: Ohio State-Michigan State on ABC was the highest-rated college football game of the season, the network announced.
The game earned a 7.0 overnight rating, surpassing the Monday night opener on ESPN between the Buckeyes and Virginia Tech (6.6). LSU-Alabama in prime time on CBS earlier this month is third (6.3).
The Buckeyes’ loss was also the highest-rated 3:30 p.m. game on ABC since the 2006 OSU-Michigan game.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.