It’s Monday again, and although each passing day may seem the same at this point to all of us in quarantine, it means a new theme has begun at SB Nation. This time at the mothership, the theme is “What If” week. During this week, we have a chance to look back into the archives and try to decide how one small change could have altered the course of history for Ohio State football.
For myself, this allows me to once again be annoying and harp on a hypothetical I've discussed with friends and fellow Buckeye fans many a time: What if Urban Meyer never took his foot off the gas against Wisconsin in the 2017 Big Ten Championship Game?
Now, let me preface this by saying I have very few complaints about the product on the field during Urban Meyer’s tenure. Meyer went 83-9 in seven seasons at Ohio State, bringing home three Big Ten titles and a National Championship during his tenure. Off-field issues aside, he was one of the greatest recruiters the game has ever seen, and will go down as one of the most legendary coaches in college football history for his entire body of work — which also includes another pair of national titles at Florida.
However, in the later stages of his coaching career, Meyer developed a bit of an odd tendency. In big games against highly-ranked opponents, the play-calling became incredibly conservative, especially if his team had the lead heading into halftime. As a result, it may have cost Ohio State at least one and potentially two extra trips to the College Football Playoff.
In 2017, the Buckeyes had a bit of an up-and-down season — at least by their standards. After easily dispatching Indiana on the road in an odd Thursday night season opener against a Big Ten school, OSU fell at home to a Baker Mayfield-led Oklahoma team. The team looked pretty dominant in the weeks that followed, and was even able to overcome a 35-20 deficit late in the third quarter against a No. 2-ranked Penn State team for a stunning and emotional 39-38 victory. Then, disaster struck.
The next week, everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong for Ohio State, as they were bludgeoned by unranked Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. J.T. Barrett threw four interceptions, and the Buckeye defense had no answers for RB Akrum Wadley, who ran for 118 yards, or any of the Hawkeye tight ends, who combined for four total touchdowns. At that point, a two-loss OSU team, one that just suffered a shocking upset, seemed all but eliminated from playoff contention.
That was not entirely the case, however. The next week, Ohio State dominated a No. 13 Michigan State team 48-3, and would win the rest of its regular season games, culminating with a 31-20 win over TTUN in Ann Arbor. At the same time, undefeated No. 1 Alabama lost to No. 6 Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which knocked the Crimson Tide out of the SEC title game.
This had seemed to open the door for the Buckeyes to sneak into the CFP. Heading into championship week, the seeding was pretty obvious at the top. Clemson was the No. 1 seed, and locked up the spot after beating up Miami in the ACC title game. The SEC champ had a guaranteed bid, which would prove to be Georgia after defeating Auburn 28-7. Oklahoma knocked off TCU in the return of the Big 12 title game, and so they were in as well.
The No. 4 seed was up for grabs. The contenders? Alabama, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
With the Crimson Tide dormant during championship week, No. 4 Wisconsin faced off against the No. 8 Buckeyes as both teams got the chance to put on one final showcase for the CFP committee. Long touchdowns by Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell sandwiched a pick-six by Barrett as OSU got out to a 14-7 lead in the first. A short Barrett TD run and a Badgers field goal had Ohio State leading 21-10 at half.
We had seen this formula from the Buckeyes before in the CFP era. A team that entered the Big Ten title game on the bubble put on a clinic against Wisconsin in 2014, which earned them the No. 4 spot over either Baylor or TCU in a year where the Big 12 did not feature a conference championship game. If Ohio State could keep it up in the second half and beat up the Badgers convincingly, it may be enough to propel them past an Alabama team that did not even take part in their conference title game.
It would not come to fruition, however, as Meyer’s second half play-calling went conservative. The Bucks did not score a single touchdown in the final 30 minutes, kicking just two fields goals in two quarters. Wisco scored a TD and a field goal of their own in the second half, and even had the ball with a chance to win the game with under three minutes to play. Alex Hornibrook would be picked off on the team’s final drive, and Ohio State went on to win 27-21 — not exactly the convincing blowout win they were looking for.
At that point, it was clear the Buckeyes would not have the resume to jump Alabama for that final playoff spot. Despite having wins over No. 2 (PSU), No. 4 (Wisco) and No. 13 (MSU), the terrible loss to Iowa on top of the early season defeat at the hands of the No. 5 Sooners was simply too much to overcome. Alabama had victories over No. 2 (FSU), No. 18 (Miss St.) and No. 19 (LSU). While they didn’t even play in the SEC title game, they had been the more dominant team all year long outside their lone loss to No. 6 Auburn, and as a result earned fourth and final CFP spot.
While it was one of the first times we had seen this second half shutdown by Urban Meyer, it would not be the last — even that same season. Having missed the playoff, the team took on No. 8 USC in the Cotton Bowl in 2017. Much like the B1G title, Ohio State took an early lead, and even dominated the Trojans in the first half. At the break, it was 24-7 Buckeyes. The final score? 24-7 Buckeyes. Once again, the offense played it safe in the second half, and after running over USC in the first 30 minutes, did not score a single point in the latter 30.
Ohio State found itself in an almost identical scenario the next season. Another stunning loss — this time to Purdue — had the Buckeyes on the outside looking in when it came to a CFP spot heading into the 2018 B1G title game. Facing Northwestern this time around, OSU once again got out to a 24-7 lead at halftime. It was the defense that took their foot off the gas on this go around, allowing the Wildcats to get back into the game in the third quarter as they cut the deficit to 24-21 and later 31-24.
It was a much bigger ask for OSU to make the playoff in 2018, likely needing an almost identical performance to their 59-0 blowout in 2014 to even have a chance at a spot. However, once again Meyer’s team sputtered in the second half and missed out on the CFP as a result.
In his final game as the head coach at Ohio State, this trend reared its ugly head one last time. Facing Washington in the Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes jumped out to a 21-3 lead at halftime, and even extended that lead to 28-3 early in the third quarter. From there, Meyer resorted back to his conservative nature once again, and by the time things were said and done, OSU would wind up with a narrow 28-23 victory.
In the later stages of his coaching career, at times it appeared Meyer was coaching more to just not lose rather than to win. Ohio State under Urban had always been a team that stepped on people’s throats and never let up prior to that 2017 Big Ten Championship. For whatever reason, the game plan kept changing in the second half of important games, resulting in fewer points for the good guys and the complete evaporation of playoff hopes for the Scarlet and Gray.
Which returns me to my original question: What if Urban Meyer had never taken his foot off the gas in that title game against Wisconsin? Alabama easily dispelled a previously undefeated Clemson team 24-6 in the first round, and would go on to win the National Championship over Georgia from their No. 4 spot. Could Ohio State have done the same? The world will never know.