When Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook hit Keith Mumphery on a perfectly thrown, perfectly caught and perfectly executed route with just over nine minutes to go in the first half of Saturday's Big Ten Championship, the simple if not improbable thought probably crept into the front of your mind for the first time: Ohio State could...
What's the word? It had been so long since that word had escaped the mouths of Buckeye fans that I'm certain some cranial digging was necessary to pick the word "lose" out of the mind.
That was the moment for me. That was when, for the first time in 700-some days, that I began to prepare myself for an offense to outscore the Buckeyes, and for the defense to finally fall victim to that which vocal majority of critics had been screaming about for the last four months. When Mumphrey walked into the endzone, I knew - and so did you, if you're being completely honest - that it was going to be a long night that would ultimately end with a soul crushing loss over two years in the making.
Of course the Buckeyes would make it interesting. One of the certainties of having Urban Meyer at the helm is the refusal to believe that any Buckeye team is ever "out" of a game. Certainly, against any defense, the Buckeye offense would eventually find a hole, be it on a sprawling Philly Brown TD grab, or on a smart end-of-the-half 36-yard reception by Jeff Heuerman to set up a quarter-closing field goal. Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde would eventually get loose on the Spartan defense. Surely Urban Meyer's game plan was sound enough to beat that of Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and Jim Freaking Bollman.
On Miller's six-yard scamper to the endzone, to put the Buckeyes up by a score, there was a glimmer of hope, but one that was ultimately extinguished after a team that had been so dominant on the ground was unable to get two yards to save their BCS lives. In the end, Michigan State did exactly what it did in 1998: beat the Big, bad Buckeyes and end their National Championship dreams.
The Buckeyes were soundly defeated, and the hopes and dreams of a season that began so brightly have come to an unremarkable close. Now what?
As Buckeye fans should remember - even though it has been quite awhile since the last time Ohio State yielded more points than it scored - this is very different from the last time a Buckeye team lost, to end with a defeat at the hands of Denard Robinson, Brady Hoke and Michigan. But this time should be a little easier to stomach. This wasn't a bad Buckeye team losing to a mediocre Michigan team, this was a great but flawed Buckeye team losing to the best opponent it had ever lined up against since Meyer took over as head coach. As we know, it could be a lot worse.
At the end of the day, though many will call it coping, the results of this season are not exactly unsuccessful. The Buckeyes will close the BCS Era with the most appearances in those bowl games ever, as well as appearing in each of the bowls individually. A win in the January 3rd Orange Bowl would elevate the Buckeyes to seven* wins in 11* overall BCS appearances, an almost unparalleled run of success. And while Urban Meyer will miss the extra $350,000 he would have received for winning on Saturday and going to the Championship Game in January, the man still earned a modest $100,000 windfall for making it to the Orange Bowl.
*Vacated or not, it happened.
But... this isn't the result that was expected when the game started on Saturday night.
The match up with Clemson will be a good one, for sure. The Tigers have a great, mobile quarterback in Tajh Boyd, once a Buckeye recruit. Boyd throws the ball to Sammy Watkins, who has over 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns to his name on the year. Dabo Swinney's squad can score with the best of them, unless they run into a talented defense. And for the sake of a should-be-shootout, there shouldn't be much of a concern about that, based on Saturday's game.
But... this isn't the ACC team that was expected to play the Buckeyes when the bowl predictions finally put Ohio State in the BCS picture last week.
There will be a lot of talk about redemption in the next few weeks, as Clemson looks to retake a national spotlight that was theirs as this college football season began. Sure enough, Clemson Clemson'd twice too many times, relegated to playing in a lower tier than they had expected. Similarly, the Buckeyes must answer a lot of questions about a defense that more resembles Swiss cheese than it does a capable secondary. Braxton Miller is not winning the Heisman this year, but he has a chance to announce his candidacy for 2014 with a big game, perhaps starting to make up for his good-but-not-good-enough Big Ten Championship performance. The stage is set for either team to put a positive bookend on superb, if slightly sub-par, seasons.
But... this isn't the end of a season that most Buckeye fans expected in year two under Urban Meyer.
"12-0 and nowhere to go" was a popular remark to make about the 2012 Buckeyes. This year, however, it is "24-1, and nowhere to run". It was bound to happen eventually, but most Ohio State fans didn't see it coming the way it did. Keith Mumphrey's touchdown started a downward trend that leads to Miami and the Orange Bowl, which would be a riotous success for any number of college football teams.
But for this edition of the Ohio State Buckeyes, when asked to answer the question "now what," the answer is simply a consolation prize in a game of what could have been.