Ohio State’s 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech from 126 days prior presented more than the only home loss and the only regular season loss of Urban Meyer’s three seasons at 37-3 so far in Columbus. It was more than an annoying anvil the Buckeyes had to haul through the midseason rankings that found them at No. 16 on Oct. 28 in the College Football Playoff selection committee’s first list. It was an extreme rarity, a one-off, an upset caused not by the favorite’s complacency, but by an offbeat strategy that wreaked the favorite’s confusion.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” Ohio State guard Pat Elflein said. “No disrespect to them.”
And he meant no disrespect, because the Buckeyes who would win their next 12 games readily confess to being outfoxed by Hokies who would lose six of their last 11. Meyer confessed it straightaway. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman, the new head coach at Houston, confessed it straightaway. Meyer admitted he had not seen a defense like it.
Senior offensive tackle Darryl Baldwin said, “That night I stayed up all night watching the film, just seeing what they were doing.”
What they were doing had not appeared on any other Virginia Tech film Ohio State had studied beforehand. To find it might have required such burrowing into the Virginia Tech film library that it might have turned up only on VHS. It was a feat of one-night cunning that forced a No. 8-ranked home team to try the hard, hard road of frenzied adapting. “Everything was going so fast, you know?” Elflein said.
If Ohio State beats Oregon on Monday night and becomes the sixth national champion in the last nine seasons to have lost at least once along the way, something called a “bear cover zero” will live on in Columbus folklore. Some 107,517 witnessed it; most disliked its effect. It was the scheme Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster had hatched, featuring a veritable Hokie team meeting near the trenches for each snap, as if they liked hanging out with the Buckeye players.
Typically, only one lonely Hokie of the allotted 11 would line up more than six yards from the football.
“We were just not prepared for that,” junior tackle Taylor Decker said, “because we hadn’t seen it on film, and you know, we’re not going to prepare for things that we don’t see on film.”
Every foe presents the need for adjustments, and every foe tries to counter its tendencies somewhat, but to hear the Buckeyes tell it, this novelty just loosed a bit too much of a frenzy. “They were giving us unique blitzes, they were giving us unique pressures and they were doing unique things on defense that we weren’t quite ready for, that we weren’t quite ready to adjust to,” senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said.
“Everything was just so intense,” Elflein said.
Over the hours, the numbers started to reflect the back-footedness. An offense that would average 45 points would get 21. An offense that would have 12 games of 400-plus yards, and nine games of 500-plus yards, and 537 yards against No. 1 Alabama, would get 327. It rushed for 108. In the 12 games since, it has rushed for an average of 280.8.
Implored by the Virginia Tech defense to throw it overhead, the Buckeyes could not. They couldn’t run slants or drags to any effect. The congregation at the line managed to thwart both the running game and the short passing game, against a master of preparation (Meyer) who always starts by telling his new teams that his plan is “infallible if you follow the plan,” said defensive end Michael Bennett.
Asked to go into film-study mode and analyze the upset that keeps looking odder, Baldwin said, “I would say the offensive line is not very good. They couldn’t block one-on-one the whole night. The quarterback [then J.T. Barrett] was young. He wasn’t making great reads. He threw three interceptions. He was just young and inexperienced. And the receivers didn’t make enough plays.”
As with one-loss title contenders of the past, the loss did end up helping. Barrett grew up fast and excelled before breaking his ankle on Nov. 29 against Michigan. The line jelled. The team “grew exponentially,” Spencer said. Yet in a way this odd case wasn’t about growing. It was about ironing one wrinkle, mastering one quirk.
Once they knew about it, they knew ensuing opponents would try to use it, and they knew how to handle it.
They say it took a matter of days, if not hours.
Four months later, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound Decker stood gigantically amid Media Day chaos. Of the anomaly that almost derailed a great-big season, he said breezily, “It’s just a matter of game planning for it.”