Ezekiel Elliott was pissed off on Saturday evening, on a cold, dark and damp night in Columbus, Ohio. After compiling the worst big-game stat line in his so far brilliant career at Ohio State, Elliott turned on the butane and let the flames fly, blasting his coaching staff for some of the most questionable play calling in recent memory. Zeke wasn't wrong in his critiques, necessarily, but some have questioned the forum in which he wildly panned the people calling (or in this case not calling) his number. Then, the currently pissed off human wrecking ball of a running back made clear his intentions to ditch scarlet and gray for the greener pastures of the NFL next year.
Is this what happens to other teams after heartbreaking losses? Pardon the hubris, but I need an answer. When Alabama lost at home to a ranked Ole Miss team earlier in the year, did Derrick Henry wildly pan Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin? Did that fanbase explode? Did it render the rest of Bama's season likely meaningless? In order: no, probably, and of course not. Alabama is a bad example here. It played the No. 8 team in the country and won by 157 this weekend!
Surely Ohio State, which looked more like an FCS school than not on Saturday, will get the benefit of the doubt after losing by a field goal to a 9-1 team that easily could have been undefeated, just the way the Crimson Tide did after losing to and Ole Miss team that is inexplicably ranked in the top 20 despite three losses.
The bottom line here, of course, is that losing is awful, and we don't have a whole lot of experience with it, which is probably why instead of rolling with the up and down punches of the college football season, we're left asking long-winded "what if" questions, and spending three paragraphs bitching about pollster bias for Alabama. It's horrible, gut-wrenching, and worth less than an iota of energy. And yet ... here we are.
On Saturday, Ohio State renews its century-old rivalry with the Michigan Wolverines, a team that lost to Utah in week one, and to Michigan State on the most unpredictable endings in this wacky year of college football (and maybe the wackiest since The Play). The Game always means something to everyone, and this year could be the determining factor in who advances to play Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game. But that game might not matter too much at all if Michigan State beats Penn State in a later kick on Saturday. With the Spartans victory last weekend, they now control their own destiny and could be two wins away from representing the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.
So what does the loss to Michigan State mean for Ohio State? Three things.
We are (all) Penn State
This isn't just a thing for Buckeye fans, but for Michigan fans as well. If Penn State goes into Spartan Stadium and beats Michigan State, then The Game's winner is the Division's winner as well. So Michigan and Ohio State must share a unified and universal amount of support for the Nittany Lions. Both teams dispatched Penn State in similarly strong fashions, so James Franklin's team will need all the help it can get against a Spartan team that beat Ohio State with a backup quarterback, and beat Michigan in the aforementioned crazy ending a few weeks back*.
*My favorite statistic, possibly ever: in its wins over Ohio State and Michigan, Michigan State led for exactly zero seconds in regulation, taking the lead for good in both games with zeroes on the clock. Your thoughts, Coach Dantonio?
Unfortunatley, the Spartans will be a tough out for the Nittany Lions, and that's mostly because the man who must lead the Penn State attack is Christian Hackenberg. How does one sum up Hackenberg in one google image search? I'm glad you asked, partner! In a season of "anything can happen", something must in East Lansing, and the fates of three teams ride on that. Since we've trotted out the Advanced Stats for the sake of predictions, it's worth mentioning that Michigan State has a 65% chance of winning this weekend, while Ohio State's chances of beating Michigan are a less than stellar 39%. There again, Sparty had only a 20% of going into Columbus and winning, so grains of salt for everyone!
First draft answer: when was the last time Ohio State dealt with any real, tangible adversity? For my money, it was on Saturday Setp. 6, 2014 with under a minute to go, and the Buckeyes down a score at home. This happened:
That was a long time ago, but it was the last time Ohio State was dealing with the adversity of a loss, just like against Michigan State on home field in a game it was supposed to win. The Buckeyes had the rest of the year to learn from that game and went on to win the first-ever College Football Playoff. Granted: it took about 14 weeks to get back to form, but it was possible.
The Buckeyes don't have that kind of time this year. Joey Bosa, Cardale Jones and Elliott have already bluntly taken their places in the draft next year. The coaches are being questioned. The #HotTakes are flying out of the oven. And instead of weeks, Ohio State has mere days to steel itself for a matchup against a huge rival. This is the kind of thing Urban Meyer is supposed to be good at, but strangely isn't (the years following his two National Championship at Florida - 2007: 9-4 and a loss to Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl; 2009: 13-1 with a loss in the SEC Championship Game, and a win against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl). The players' mettle will be tested this week; so will Meyer's.
Buckeyes finally get to just be fans again
This season has been difficult to watch. The Sunday and Monday Morning Quarterbacking after close wins has been difficult to read about and listen to. In a way, this whole situation is oddly refreshing: there's no real pressure this week since the Buckeyes no longer control their own destiny. That also means the expectations get ratcheted way the hell down in a manner of speaking. Even with Michigan up next, and with an uncomfortable reliance on Penn State this weekend, there isn't the same amount of pressure typically put upon an undefeated and unimpressive football team (see: Florida State, 2014).
The team gets to play loose. And fans get to stay loose. No answering to pundits and committees and expectations. This week gets to be about rebounding and beating Michigan -- and nothing else gets to matter. College football will sort itself out regardless of what happens this week. Fans get to sit back and have the kind of fun that chip-on-the-should-less fans should have every Saturday. Would it be better to have the burdens stacked up? Sure. But the ability to solely focus on cursing khakis to high heaven is a fun thing, too.
Elliott was pissed. Buckeye Nation was pissed. Losing is the worst. But it's still Hate Week. OSU faithful still have at least two more chances to watch this team play. You can still enjoy it while it's still here.