INDIANAPOLIS: No season really ends.
The final game merely triggers issues about next year. It’s always who, what and when, whether it’s the first game on the schedule or the last.
And so Ohio State’s 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game Saturday night serves mostly as a segue into 2014 with the inevitable question: Now what?
Of course, in the wake of a loss that cost the Buckeyes a chance to become national champions, there is a devastatingly empty feeling among the players, the fans and coach Urban Meyer, himself, who resembled the leading character in one of those zombie films after the loss.
He talked about still going to a “great” bowl game (probably the Orange), but Meyer’s demeanor was of a man whose dog has been missing for a month and probably won’t be coming back. Emotions can trump almost anything, so the wasted cans of dog food in the pantry are the least of his concerns.
“You know, it’s going to haunt all of us I imagine for a little while,” Meyer said. “But that’s part of the game.”
It is not part of the game he has been coaching since coming to Columbus before the 2012 season. Until Saturday night, he had not lost. Not even once. That should put the Spartans near the top of the list of opponents Meyer wants to pummel most (Michigan, by rule, always is at the top of that list).
But contrary to what most of Buckeye Nation was beginning to take for granted, an unending string of wins doesn’t happen because the coach wills it.
There were disturbing elements to the defeat, first among them a secondary that might have trouble covering a slow-moving stage coach. Thankfully, C.J. Barnett, Corey Brown and maybe Bradley Roby will be former OSU defensive backs by time spring practice begins.
Roby is a junior but aspires to play in the NFL. That sounded like a logical move after last season, but he has suffered through a fitful 2013 schedule and might not be coveted by a pro team at this moment.
Meyer talked about “fixing” the secondary after the game Saturday night. But it’s unlikely that three weeks from now, when the Buckeyes play in a bowl game, that the defensive backfield can be repaired. That will take an influx of new personnel.
Maybe it will happen next year with another recruiting class in the house and with underclassmen such as Tyvus Powell, Ron Tanner, Doran Grant, Gareon Conley and Vonn Bell stepping up.
The heart and soul of the running attack, Carlos Hyde, also is a senior and should be a high-round draft pick of an NFL team, hopefully a team other than the Browns (Hyde doesn’t need our local bunglers to foul up his career).
He will be sorely missed unless Ezekiel Elliott, a freshman from St. Louis, makes a quick transition to the college game. He already has had some exposure, gaining 267 yards in 30 carries, an enviable average of 8.7 yards.
Most of all there are question marks about quarterback Braxton Miller, whose wondrous legs helped keep Meyers’ 24-game win streak alive.
Toward the end of the season, Meyer relied on Hyde and Miller as a ground-eating tandem. That is, they gave him a two-pronged running attack that was unstoppable by most opponents. Even Michigan State, which leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing 64.8 yards per game, couldn’t contain them.
Miller dented the Spartan defense for 142 yards on the ground (averaging 6.8) and Hyde ran for 118 yards (a 6.6 average). Until Saturday night, Michigan State had allowed only two teams to run for 100 yards in a game.
But as the rushing plays mounted for Miller, the pass plays diminished. After the Buckeyes took a 24-17 lead with 7:48 to play in the third quarter, Miller was permitted to throw three passes, until desperation set in with 2:08 to play in the game and OSU trailing by 10 points.
Did Meyer decide that his ground game was so efficient that it could not be stopped by the Spartans? Or did concerns about the accuracy of Miller’s darts become the paramount issue. I suspect it was the latter, inasmuch as Meyer is not afraid to fill the air with footballs.
So what does that mean for Miller’s future? And does he have a future with the Buckeyes? If he chooses, Miller can make himself eligible for the NFL Draft. Or he can return for his senior season.
He has made substantial progress as a throwing quarterback, but he might not be ready to take his talents to the NFL. If he does, where does that leave the Buckeyes, and do they have the right stuff to ring up 24 consecutive wins again?
More important, is a run at the national championship a realistic goal? For Ohio State and Urban Meyer, that is essentially a given to Buckeye fans.