COLUMBUS: No one knew how Urban Meyer would react after his first loss in 25 games as Ohio State football coach. The only window into his disappointment was a Sports Illustrated interview and a photograph of him sitting on a golf cart disconsolately nibbling on a slice of pizza in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium.
In turn, no one knew how the Buckeyes would react as they looked to Meyer as their model for how to handle adversity. Their “template,” as OSU left tackle Jack Mewhort called him Friday.
Meyer is their leader, their beacon out of the NCAA darkness that prohibited them from playing in the postseason in 2012 after they went 12-0. In 2013, he was the one who kept them on course and undefeated when quarterback Braxton Miller was injured and the secondary was repeatedly burned and the linebackers struggled to play up to OSU standards.
So after their national championship hopes were dashed a week ago with a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game, all eyes turned to Meyer.
That moment came Thursday, after the first of 15 practices before OSU takes on Clemson Jan. 3 in the Orange Bowl in Sun Life Stadium.
Meyer had just returned from a recruiting trip. When drills ended, the Buckeyes huddled around him on the field.
This was the moment they’d been waiting for since he spoke after the defeat in Indianapolis. They’d been separated for a few days, Meyer on the road, the players getting time off for finals week.
Yet Meyer didn’t resort to clichéd quotes about bouncing back and finishing strong. He told the Buckeyes he loved them.
“I think that meant a lot to us,” senior Mewhort said. “It’s not about players, it’s about people. I think he knows we’re a bunch of good people and I think he appreciates that. He loves us all.
“When you hear a guy like that say things like that to you, it motivates you to move forward and win another game.”
That’s not to say it’s easy for the Buckeyes to move forward. Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said he watched film of the Michigan State game and when lying in bed asked himself, “How did this happen? Why did this happen?”
“I stopped thinking about it because it felt so unreal,” Shazier said Friday before practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Junior tight end Jeff Heuerman, who missed the block on a foiled run by Miller on fourth-and-2 in the final six minutes against MSU, said he has gone over the play “about a million times.” Meyer took over the play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tom Herman and elected to run Miller instead of virtually unstoppable back Carlos Hyde.
Defensive lineman Joey Bosa seemed a little haunted, too.
“I’m trying to not think about it anymore,” Bosa said. “It was really hard for a couple of days. It still gets at me every once in a while.”
The four who spoke sounded determined not to have a Michigan State hangover against Clemson. They don’t want to be the team in a BCS game that acts like it wished it wasn’t invited.
“We’ve been fighting the last two years for a lot of things and we wanted to get to a bowl game and championships,” Shazier said. “I feel like the Orange Bowl is going to be our championship.”
Mewhort knows this will be a test of the Buckeyes’ character and he expects them to “handle it like grown men.” He realizes the Buckeyes cannot continue to torment themselves with what went wrong against MSU.
“When you start going back to the coulda, woulda, shouldas, I think that’s poisonous to a team,” Mewhort said. “We know we worked hard and put in a lot of effort. We’re not going where we wanted to be going, but we’re playing in the Orange Bowl. That’s a big-time bowl game.”
Mewhort and the other seniors can do much to set the right tone and help the Buckeyes forget. The leadership seems strong, especially when senior safety Christian Bryant, sidelined by a broken ankle on Sept. 28, is included.
But Meyer will still be their “template.” It was a major failure for him, too, a two-time BCS title winner at times outcoached and certainly upstaged by Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio.
Six days after the worst night of their college football lives, Meyer, a psychology major at the University of Cincinnati, decided love was what the Buckeyes needed. Perhaps he feels strengthening their bond and making them want to play for each other is the only way to pick up the pieces and win one more game.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.