The news was more disappointing than the Cleveland Browns.
It was August 18, and Tim May — an Ohio State football reporter institution unto himself at The Columbus Dispatch — was preparing to watch Johnny Football and team take the field for the Browns against the Redskins. The phone rang and on the other end of it was the story, and heartbreak, of the year — Braxton Miller, the two-time Big 10 offensive player of the year and Heisman frontrunner, was injured and out for the season. A torn labrum during a non-contact play in practice had done him in. With it the high hopes for the Buckeyes wilted.
Less than 3 weeks later, Ohio State was a mess. In the home opener night-game before a record crowd at the newly expanded ‘Shoe, J.T. Barrett — a red-shirt freshman playing his first meaningful action in the Buckeye state — threw 3 interceptions while becoming uncomfortably all-too-familiar with the perpetually blitzing and stunting Virginia Tech defensive front. The Buckeyes ran for 108 yards on 40 carries. Ezekiel Elliott ran the ball only 8 times. The 35-21 loss felt like the heralding of a lost year, a talented Ohio State team suffering a cruel twist of fortune from a key injury. It was tough luck.
And the obituary for the Big Ten was written too, for good reason. The September 6th weekend saw defending conference champion Michigan State lose by 19 to Oregon; a typical Brady Hoke-like Michigan shut out 31-0 against Notre Dame. Even the wins were weak-kneed: Nebraska edging McNeese State by 7, Iowa beating Ball State by 4. And it all came only a week after Wisconsin blew a 17 point second half lead in a loss to a rebuilding LSU.
The ESPN headline read, “Big Ten busted after two weeks.” One got the feeling that somewhere deep within the confines of Bristol, Mark May and colleagues were laughing maniacally at the train-wreck of a once proud conference, paraphrasing Reagan, “There they go again.”
So it was to be another year down the drain for the Buckeyes. Another year of enduring the patronizing antagonism of the rest of the country about the Big Ten. Most especially by the SEC, whose not-without-good-reason self-indulgent snootiness seemed to beam brighter every autumn.
Most assuredly our beloved Buckeyes would be back in contention next year with Braxton back at the helm. And in the meantime we could wrap ourselves in the ever-cheery-outlook that even with a down team we’d still kick the hell out of Michigan. An outcome as sure as the sun rising during the Urban-Hoke era.
On January 15th, 2015 Cardale Jones stood at a podium at Ginn Academy in Cleveland. Wearing a “12 Gauge” t-shirt he announced he would return to Ohio State to play football. A third-stringer to start the season, previously unknown outside of Columbus aside from a tweet sent years ago about class not being his favorite activity, he said ”Being a first-round draft pick means nothing to me without my education.” Second stringer, J.T. Barrett tweeted to Cardale, “You have changed man.”
Change defined the 2014 season for the Buckeyes. One that saw two Heisman-worthy quarterbacks fall. One that saw the dreams of the Big Ten and the Buckeyes seemingly dashed in the first weekend of September. And one that saw a team — and conference — who had taken more shots to the body than Apollo Creed’s sparring partner deliver a knock-out to the mighty-SEC and seize the national championship in the first ever College Football Playoff.
Perhaps this is how it had to be. In many ways it’s all a little too poetic that Cardale Jones, a once dismissed quarterback — led a once dismissed team, from a once dismissed conference- to the crown. In the process, Cardale grew up — showing the maturity to lead a team on the field to consecutively beat — and really, dominate — Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon. All teams with talent and coaching themselves worthy of the title champion.
This Ohio State team had changed too. Gone was the Virginia Tech offensive line that resembled a turnstile at Cedar Point in July; in was a typical Ed Warinner, Big 10 unit that would have made Woody Hayes blush. There was Ezekiel Elliott, wearing a cutoff and dicing through defenders in the post-season for a tune of 696 yards and 8 touchdowns. There was Joey Bosa — half-Hercules, half-innovator — throwing running backs at the legs of their quarterbacks to sack them and shrugging all along the way. There was Devin Smith casually grabbing hail-mary length passes game in and game out. There was Darron Lee creating havoc; Evan Spencer creating hidden yards. And there was Coach Meyer on the sideline, steely-eyed and confident that his band of big game underdogs was not to be outmatched.
The season ended with Oregon, but in many ways it was cemented with the win over Alabama. The number one team in the playoff was not done in by a fluke or call, they were physically pushed around. Down by 15 after two costly turnovers, Ohio State’s offense kicked into gear and Ezekiel Elliott took over to the tune of 230 yards and 11.5 yards per carry. The annual croon of the superiority of SEC speed was shadowed behind blurs of scarlet and gray as Devin Smith, Zeke & the gang amassed 537 yards of total offense.
In the zero-sum world of college football, the B1G’s rise marked the SEC’s fall. Alabama’s defeat came amidst ranked SEC West teams going 0-5 in bowl games. Underdogs each, Wisconsin beat Auburn and for good measure, Michigan State took out high-octane (and grumpy to be excluded from the playoff) Baylor.
“Ohio State Defeats Alabama in Sugar Bowl, Ends SEC’s Dynasty” read the Wall Street Journal. “It’s A New Day: The Big 10 Is Back” read Yahoo News.
Ten days and four Ezekiel Elliott touchdowns later, Ohio State was national champion.
Cardale Jones walked to the podium at Ginn Academy on January 15th after a remarkable three game span that will live forever in Buckeye lore. As he stepped up to the mic in the gymnasium, Drake’s lyrics played through loudspeakers, “Started from the bottom now we’re here, started from the bottom now my whole team here.” It was a fitting song for the third-stringer-turned-champion Cardale. It was a fitting song for the left-for-dead-in-September Buckeyes. It was a fitting song for the formerly on life support Big Ten.
In 2015— Cardale, the Buckeyes, and the Big Ten are all back.
Until then- Go Bucks,
Editor, Buckeye Daily