The trip to Ann Arbor was bumpy. The bus ride back to Columbus turned unforgettable.
Ohio State escaped Michigan with a 42-41 victory last Saturday, only after stopping a last-minute two-point conversion attempt. Riding home relieved, the Buckeyes knew they still needed an opening to reach the BCS Championship Game.
Then it came.
With the Buckeyes nearing campus, the televisions in their buses showed Alabama kicker Adam Griffith lining up his 57-yard field goal attempt. Like the rest of the country, Ohio State watched in disbelief as Auburn’s Chris Davis returned that too-short kick 109 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“It was absolutely nuts for 15 minutes,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said.
The next day, while heated arguments raged over Ohio State’s worthiness for a BCS title berth, Meyer said his team’s focus was on one thing only — beating Michigan State in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
“The bottom line is Ohio State’s not in any conversation unless we can figure out how to move the ball against the number one defense in America,” Meyer said.
The debate has raged for weeks. No. 2 Ohio State might be 24-0 in two years under Meyer, including 12-0 this season. But with the Big Ten’s national respect level sagging, many have suggested an undefeated champ from that conference is less deserving of a BCS title game berth than a one-loss Southeastern Conference champion.
The SEC has produced the past seven BCS champions. Third-ranked Auburn will meet No. 5 Missouri on Saturday night in the SEC title game.
“It would be, quite frankly, un-American for us not to get a chance to go to Pasadena [for the BCS title game] if we’re able to beat Missouri, and I believe the same about Missouri,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs told ESPN.
Back at full strength
The Buckeyes feature the nation’s No. 3 scoring offense, at 48.5 points per game. Quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde were nearly unstoppable over the second half of the season.
Miller, whose Heisman Trophy hopes plunged when he missed two nonconference games because of a knee injury, quickly regained his footing and just received his second Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Award.
“He’s made a lot of great plays with his legs, and I think he’s improved a lot with his arm,” Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said.
The 6-foot, 242-pound Hyde has made even bigger strides. Suspended from the season’s first three games because of a disciplinary issue, the senior averaged 166 rushing yards over the final seven games.
“He’s really hard to bring down,” Meyer said. “He’s playing as good as any tailback, I’ve ever watched.”
The Buckeyes’ skeptics point to their nonconference schedule, filled with easy victories over Buffalo, San Diego State, California and Florida A&M. Ohio State’s best win came next — 31-24 over Wisconsin — but the value of that victory decreased Saturday when Penn State upset the Badgers.
Never mind that No. 1 Florida State has made its schedule look just as soft heading into Saturday’s ACC Championship Game against No. 20 Duke. Ohio State has been the one in the national cross hairs.
“We’ve been doubted all year,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “We would beat teams by like 35 points and people would doubt us for it. So it’s not really anything new to us.”
The Michigan scare only emboldened Ohio State’s critics. The Wolverines, now 7-5, had been stuck in a four-game malaise, averaging 330 total yards per game. But facing their archrivals at home, they rolled up 603 yards on the Buckeyes.
Ohio State still boasts the nation’s 18th-ranked scoring defense but few are talking about that anymore. They’re too busy pointing to the missed tackles and missed assignments against Michigan.
“I think it’s a thing we have to work on, but I don’t think that’s going to happen again,” Buckeyes linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We were kind of out if it. There were a lot of emotions in this game, a lot of guys were trying to do too much. We have to work on a few things, but I definitely don’t think that’ll happen again.”