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Ohio State football: The blame game

So Friday night's Orange Bowl happened, much as Buckeye Nation would like to forget. The loss exposed a lot about the Buckeye football team, and presented a myriad of questions. In particular: who gets the blame for the 40-35 loss?

The Buckeyes couldn't catch up to the Tigers
The Buckeyes couldn't catch up to the Tigers
Mike Ehrmann

When Braxton Miller tried to thread the needle to Philly Brown with under 90 seconds to go in last Friday's Orange Bowl, several things could have happened.  Brown could have made the catch on the bullet pass from Miller, turned upfield and evaded some tacklers and gone into the end zone to put the Buckeyes up by at least one point.  Brown could have simply made the catch for a first down, leaving the Buckeyes deep in Clemson territory with plenty of time for Miller and even Carlos Hyde to continue to gash the Tiger defense en route to a possible score.  The pass could have even fallen to the ground incomplete and the stopped clock provided enough time for the Buckeyes to regroup and get ready for a third down.

Woody Hayes used to say that when you throw the ball, three things can happen and "two of them ain't good".  On Friday night for the Buckeyes, Miller threw that pass and, indeed, one of the "ain't good" things happened, as Stephone Anthony leaped up and plucked the ball from the air, securing* the interception and effectively ending the Orange Bowl in favor of his Clemson Tigers, and handing the Buckeyes their first consecutive losses in two years.

*=unless, you know, he didn't actually control the ball all the way to the ground on the interception.

The 2014 Orange Bowl lived up to its billing last Friday in many ways.  It was projected to be a shootout between two star quarterbacks, with defenses struggling to catch up to NFL-bound wide receivers and running backs on both sides of the field.  In many ways, that prediction was dead on: Clemson's Tajh Boyd with over 500 yards of offense, accounting for six touchdowns against a much-weakened Buckeye secondary.  Boyd led passers and rushers on the night, in an MVP performance that must have left a few NFL scouts impressed. Sammy Watkins, Clemson's #1 receiver, gashed the Buckeye defense for 227 yards and two scores, each prettier than the next.  The Clemson Tigers roared on offense throughout the game, with big players making big performances.

Carlos Hyde ended his Buckeye career with another 100+ yard rushing performance, including a game-changing 31 yard scamper on fourth down that eventually put the Buckeyes up by nine, and, in the minds of some, out of reach.  Braxton Miller, who looked uneasy behind center for most of the night, still accounted for 269 total yards, and four TDs.  And despite having the LGHL editorial staff dressed for the game, the banged up Buckeye defense bent plenty but didn't break too much against a great Clemson offense.

But at the end of the night, it was Clemson on top, and the Anthony interception sealed the deal, in a game that was in many ways one of the dumbest, most undisciplined games the BCS has ever seen.  After the loss, Clemson rode high, exorcising the demons of the 70-33 shellacking in the 2012 Orange Bowl.  The Buckeyes returned to the cannon fodder of most critics and pundits who rightfully predicted that Urban Meyer's team wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

And now we have to ask: who gets the blame?

Plenty of people in Columbus and across the country will point at Luke Fickell, the man in charge of a defense that could not see fit to stop a butterfly, much less a top-tier QB/WR combo.  There are mitigating excuses for the defense, of course: many injuries forced future starters to take their future place way too soon.  Joey Bosa, the best player on the defensive line, was well below 100% after a few stumbles during the game.  Sammy Watkins is really good at football, you guys.  This list goes on.

I don't put the blame on Fickell or on the defensive staff, at least not entirely.  The game plan for Clemson was easily formed after watching Michigan State and Michigan run screen pass after screen pass and gain yard after yard in the last two Buckeye games.  Why give the Clemson wideouts so much space?  But put yourself in Fickell's shoes: the top cornerback is out, which means there will be extra pressure on the replacement, as well as on the safeties to help when necessary.  Luke Fickell is a great coach, but he likely knew the limitations on his defense, and simply didn't feel comfortable leaving his safeties "on an island" - better to give up 15 yards than 50.  That makes sense.

What about passing the buck to Philly Brown's muffed punt, giving Clemson, then down nine points, new life?  This was certainly a major turning point in the game, as many columnists, bloggers and amateur football pundits mentioned.  Yet...the Buckeyes weren't in a position where they needed a drive to complete a comeback.  Much like against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, the comeback was already complete, and the Buckeyes had the lead.  Even with the ensuing Clemson score, the Buckeyes would get the ball with just over a quarter to play and have a lead.

Who gets the blame: Luke Fickell, Philly Brown, Braxton Miller or Urban Meyer?

So now one must ask about Braxton Miller.  This game had the potential to be a springboard for one of three things: either Miller has a huge game on the ground and through the air, sending his draft stock flying and easing his potential decision to call it a Buckeye career.  Or, he has the same big game, setting up a senior season to remember, with attainable aspirations including a Heisman Trophy and national championship berth.  Or there's option three: Miller is uneven all night, turns the ball over at inopportune times and spends too much time on his back.  Option three is what we saw, but it is the product of an offensive line that was blown up all night, and a quarterback who was banged up throughout the game.

So that leaves one person: Urban Meyer.  As infallible as Meyer has been since his tenure began, against Clemson and against Michigan State, the dream coach in his dream job has been out-dueled by Mark Dantonio and Dabo Swinney, which is as ridiculous as it sounds.  Clemson took 15 penalties for 144 yards, 20 of them for sideline violations, and still managed to out-play the Buckeyes on the field, and master the Buckeye masterminds on the sideline.  It was a sloppy game more for the Buckeyes than it was for the Tigers, and one can be inclined to put that blame directly on the shoulders of the person calling the shots.  Meyer never bragged about having any sort of decided schematic advantage over Clemson, but him comes the expectation that the Buckeyes will never get outsmarted.  Now, that has happened twice in as many games.

After a loss that will leave Buckeye fans stocked to the gills with off-season questions, it is only natural to play the blame game afterward.  But it probably wasn't Luke Fickell's fault.  It probably wasn't Philly Brown's or Braxton Miller's fault.  And despite overwhelming evidence, it probably wasn't Urban Meyer's fault, either.  The Buckeyes got beat in a BCS bowl by a team that simply played better in the long run.  If Buckeye fans want someone to blame for the loss, blame Clemson for humbling Ohio State on a national stage.

Or just blame Drake.  It is ALWAYS Drake's fault.