Yet the Ohio State Buckeyes did not think that on Thursday night in a national playoff semifinal at the Superdome. They literally did not feel that trouble. This wasn’t because they had some rah-rah moment of brotherhood and pluck. This didn’t fall into the bulging sports file of pulling it together out of having “something to prove.” This was because they believed, one after the other through the merry late-night locker room, that the 21-6 score midway through the second quarter did not reflect accurately the goings-on on the field.
They felt certain right down to their bones partly because they have a head coach, Urban Meyer, who has a long-established knack for convincing college players of things. They also have a head coach who knows his way around the Southeastern Conference, the level at which they were testing themselves for the first time as they opposed No. 1 Alabama.
They also knew about the stat sheet, which one after another kept bringing up.
“Yeah,” tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “Obviously you look at the stats, when we came in at halftime. We had about 350 yards, they had about 120.”
That was as close to true as it needed to be — 348-139 — but there’s something more telling from the moment of the 21-6 deficit. At that point, with 8 minutes 9 seconds left in the second quarter and the doors seemingly about to blow off, the Buckeyes already had 193 yards to Alabama’s 132. That was before they took off on touchdown drives of 77 and 71 yards before halftime. That was before Cardale Jones, their third-string quarterback in that second start, shrugged off his interception to complete 8 of 10 passes for 109 yards on those two drives.
Even at that point, the Buckeyes had hard, numerical evidence to match their sense of belonging in the game. This game, they reasoned, did not deserve to have a skewed scoreboard resembling the overmatched deluges Ohio State teams took in January 2007 and January 2008, games that helped harden an image of Ohio State and the Big Ten as laggards, football-wise. Alabama’s three early scores, after all, included “drives” of 33 and 15 yards off Ohio State turnovers.
“I wouldn’t say we were mad when we were down 21-6,” defensive end Michael Bennett said. “I’d say that we were resilient. We knew that wasn’t a proper reflection of how we played and that we were just making mistakes so the biggest thing was, Calm down, don’t let the hype get to you, and trust the offense.”
“We didn’t do any screaming and yelling,” Jones said.
In the sweeping inversion that followed, with Ohio State outscoring Alabama 36-14 the rest of the way, the Buckeyes added to a big Big Ten day — Wisconsin over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Michigan State over Baylor in the Cotton — and reshaped the national landscape. Ohio State wide receiver Evan Spencer pegged the fresh reality: There’s no dominant conference anymore; there are only very good teams here and there. The SEC won’t reach the title game for the first time since January 2006, and its four Alabama-Mississippi titans who defined the regular season went 0-4 in bowl games.
Meyer, the former SEC coach who went to Ohio State, had known two colossal tussles with Alabama Coach Nick Saban, in SEC championship games of December 2008 and December 2009. Florida won the first, an impossibly determined Alabama the second. Meyer knew he had to build Ohio State like an SEC team, with a fleet defensive line for one thing, and he knew his way around the most bullying block in the sport.
As it got close to 1 a.m. under the Superdome, he also knew his way around the stadium tunnel. As he headed back toward the locker room, he shared a hug and a conversation with his former quarterback, Tim Tebow. Together, they won two national championships at Florida, the first with Chris Leak as foremost quarterback. Said Tebow: “I think you need to give those [Ohio State] coaches a lot of credit and those players a lot of credit. They played really hard and they believed the entire time.”
As he said that, Meyer had gone farther down the hallway, where he stopped again. As he spoke to a cluster of reporters, another quarterback waited next to him, holding out a red Gatorade toward Meyer, who didn’t seem to notice this quarterback at first. Presumed starter Braxton Miller had gone down with injury in the summer. Excellent replacement J.T. Barrett had gone down with injury on the first play of the fourth quarter on Nov. 29. It had been unusual football inconvenience.
When Meyer said the Sugar Bowl had “just legitimized that he was a big-time quarterback,” he referred to the guy standing right by him, Jones, technically the “third-stringer.” Said Meyer, “People said, ‘Ah, anybody can beat Wisconsin,’” as Jones did in December. “Well, they can’t.” As Meyer had made sure his players knew, Wisconsin, which lost to Ohio State 59-0, had edged in overtime Auburn, which ran around the Tuscaloosa floor with Alabama in a 55-44 tussle.
In so many ways, the Buckeyes had had precisely the right coach for trailing 21-6.
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