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Ohio State’s Fiesta Bowl loss could have a silver lining after all

While the game itself was excruciating, the resulting implications could help the Buckeyes in the long term.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

“Ohio State is not used to this. I’m not used to this, and we will not get used to this. That’s not going to happen again.”

-Urban Meyer, via Ben Axelrod, Land of 10

Ohio State’s 31-point loss to Clemson didn’t have many bright spots for the Buckeyes. The offense was anemic, with J.T. Barrett passing for just 127 yards on the night. The entire team managed just 88 rushing yards, despite averaging 258 per game entering Saturday’s matchup.The kicking game was a nightmare and the defense was on the field for nearly 36 minutes. It was the worst loss of Urban Meyer’s career--at Ohio State and otherwise. And it was the second-straight shutout for the Big Ten in the last two College Football Playoffs.

So where is the silver lining? With this year’s Fiesta Bowl loss, the 2016 season now looks very similar to Urban Meyer’s second season at Ohio State in 2013, in which Braxton Miller led the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season before two straight losses in the Big Ten Championship game to Michigan State and in the Orange Bowl to Clemson. As the Buckeyes ended the season with two losses, it became clear that the status quo under which Ohio State had been operating was not sufficient. The defense in general and the secondary in particular had gaping deficiencies which were not addressed during the regular season. The Buckeyes had finished the season ranked 110th nationally in passing defense. After the season, Meyer shored up the secondary, bringing in Chris Ash from Arkansas to replace Everett Withers. The resulting change produced a strong culture on defense that, even with the loss of Ash this season to Rutgers, has continued throughout this year.

Now, however, the issues are on the other side of the ball, as Tom Herman’s departure to Houston has left the offense floundering--an problem that was evident even last season. While there were some bright moments for Barrett and the offense, such as their twin, 59-point wins over Nebraska and Maryland, Barrett never seemed to find a complete rhythm over the duration of the season, Curtis Samuel didn’t get the ball enough and Mike Weber, while still a great running back, was not a sure replacement for Ezekiel Elliott. The offensive line, even with two veterans in Billy Price and Pat Elflein, was inconsistent. Meyer now has the opportunity, just as in 2013, to shake up his coaching staff and get the offense back on track.

We’ve already seen some coaching changes. Perhaps the Buckeyes can produce a similar result come next year.

“Even when I was coming back and starting to get healthy, why would you try something different if he has made every kick? I felt the same way. Tyler was doing that well, so for me, I was kind of just looking forward to being ready in case something happened to him.”

-Ohio State kicker Sean Nuernberger, via Ari Wasserman,

Entering this season, as so many new faces made their appearance on the Ohio State depth chart, there was little question as to who would be kicking for the Buckeyes, as Sean Nuernberger was the only kicker on scholarship in August. In 2015, Nuernberger split time with senior kicker Jack Willoughby, and only attempted four field goals on the season. Still, he was the only kicker on the roster who had seen playing time. However, with a groin injury for Nuernberger sustained during fall camp, kicking duties suddenly fell to senior walk on Tyler Durbin, who had only begun to play football in the last two years. Though Nuernberger’s injury required time to heal, by the time he was ready to get back on the field, Durbin had gotten into a good rhythm on special teams. Even Nuernberger agreed with Meyer’s decision to keep the walk on as the starter.

Overall, Durbin’s first season as a starter was a good one. Entering the final game of the regular season against Michigan, Durbin was perfect on field goals--the exception being a blocked attempt against Penn State--and was 60-of-62 on extra points. And against Michigan, when Durbin was widely critiqued for missing two field goal attempts, he did hit the tying score which sent the game to overtime.

Next season, with Durbin graduating, Nuernberger is once again the expected starter heading into 2017. While Nuernberger said that he had his best offseason ever last year, he acknowledged that he will have to build up trust with his team once again, not having kicked with them for an entire season. With true freshman kicker Blake Haubeil joining the team next season, Nuernberger will need to be healthy and ready to compete for his own starting role come next fall.

“You can’t put a price tag on it. He’ll forever be, not just in Ohio State history, he’ll be one of the most successful college football players of all time.”

-Urban Meyer, via Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated

Quarterback J.T. Barrett hasn’t put much consideration into entering the NFL Draft in April, thereby foregoing his final year of eligibility at Ohio State, but it would seem that he is leaning toward remaining in Columbus, saying after the game that “it will be really hard for me to walk away when we just lost 31-0.” He was sacked three times and was picked off twice Saturday--certainly not the way Barrett would choose to end his prolific career with the Buckeyes.

Currently, Barrett is not projected to get drafted should he choose to leave Ohio State. Analysts cite that he has seemed to have “regressed as a thrower,” with his completion percentage dropping since last season. And, leader though he is on the field, he does not project confidence as a passer. At 6-foot-1, 223-pounds, and with a 4.5 second 40-yard dash, Barrett is mediocre on his measurables, but similar to Russell Wilson, who has obviously worked out for the Seahawks. Unfortunately, his mediocre passing, especially this season, have not leant much confidence in his arm either. Assuming he does get drafted, he would be a likely late round pick, and would be relegated to a backup role at best.

Meyer has expressed the need for the Buckeyes to once again become a good passing team, a need which became abundantly clear as Ohio State finished ranked 82nd nationally in passing offense. Should Barrett return to Columbus, it would likely be in a much more friendly offensive scheme.

If Barrett stays at Ohio State, he could break Art Schlichter’s career win record, and conceivably hold the top spot in every major passing and scoring statistic for the Buckeyes. That type of reputation could pay dividends for life after football, if an NFL career did not ultimately pan out, in the form of endorsements, building his personal brand and, potentially, job prospects.