Austin WardESPN Staff Writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — As it turns out, Ohio State was a year away after all.
The Buckeyes seemingly had grown up in a hurry this season. For all the fresh faces in the starting lineup and all the success that appeared to arrive overnight, eventually all that youth was bound to catch up to them.
Make no mistake: Ohio State had earned the right to compete under the lights in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl. But the Buckeyes clearly weren’t ready to take the next step and contend for a championship. The lopsided 31-0 loss to Clemson and the clock’s striking midnight Saturday officially started a year when a title shot might be more realistic.
“I thought we were going to go compete for the national championship in 10 days or whatever it is,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I really did. That comment I made [about maybe being a year away] was prior to the season — not today.
“Shoot, I thought we were ready to go. And I didn’t anticipate this at all.”
Meyer wasn’t the only one blindsided by the blowout, particularly because there was no precedent for it in his entire career, and these youthful Buckeyes had played beyond their years all season.
One of the game’s most respected offensive minds, Meyer had never been shut out. One of the most successful postseason coaches in history had a team on the field that committed foolish penalties, failed to generate any sort of consistency with the football and squandered its best chances to hang with the Tigers.
While the 16 first-year starters had their issues, even the veterans struggled as part of a complete meltdown that had practically nothing in common with the performances that defined an 11-win season on the way to the College Football Playoff. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was inaccurate with his passing and unable to produce much on the ground. Rimington Trophy winner Pat Elflein was flagged for an illegal snap. Star H-back Curtis Samuel couldn’t come down with a pass that looked like it should have been an easy first down but instead was a drive-killer.
There was obviously no shortage of blame to go around. But Ohio State refused to point to its lack of experience as an excuse for what happened, even though it was also quick to turn the attention to the future and a roster that isn’t going to have that problem again.
“We just weren’t nine units strong,” defensive back Malik Hooker said. “You know, when one unit ain’t strong, none of us are strong. I feel like that was it. It wasn’t inexperience. Everybody still gave great effort and made a lot of plays out there, but there was just stuff that we left out there that I feel like, if we would have got it done, we would have won this game.
“But this is the start for a lot more young guys who are just coming in here next year. People don’t know about them yet, but they’re pretty much in my shoes. People don’t know they’re going to be the guys next year. Then everybody will know: This is a monster in the making.”
The nightmares right now belong to the Buckeyes, though, and the sting of this defeat isn’t likely to fade for a while. Even with many key contributors expected to return — regardless of how many players decide to declare for the NFL draft — there are lots of questions Meyer and his program will have to answer in the offseason, if Ohio State is going to be a legitimate threat to win the national title.
Meyer had vowed after winning the Fiesta Bowl at the end of last season that Ohio State would address its inconsistent, stagnant passing attack, but that never came to fruition, despite having Barrett back and healthy. Clemson seemed to have no issues figuring out the tendencies and playcalling of the Buckeyes, and it wasn’t the first time this season that a talented defense disrupted the attack. Just like the last time Clemson knocked off Ohio State in the postseason (at the Orange Bowl after the 2013 season), Meyer might consider a shakeup in the coaching staff and playbook, which he did on the defensive side of the ball three years ago.
“I’m going to take a hard look at some things when we get back,” Meyer said. “Obviously, there were some great things this year, some great things. I go back to Norman, Oklahoma [a 45-24 win over the Sooners], and some other great things.
“I’m not used to it. We’re not used to it. And that’s not going to happen again. So go to work. … Anytime you struggle a little bit, you always take a hard look.”
The Buckeyes aren’t going to like what they see when they reflect on the painful end to 2016. Meyer was clearly ready to turn the page as he walked out to midfield with nine seconds left, believing the game to be over after Clemson kneeled on a fourth-down play and asking the officials to just call the game.
One more snap officially brought the year to an unexpectedly brutal end for the Buckeyes. But they’re still on schedule for a much better 2017.
“I feel like we grew up fast, defied the odds, and I’m happy with the season,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “I just want to get to work and get this feeling out of my mind.”
Clemson gave Ohio State the green light to get started. And it left no doubt that this wasn’t the year for the Buckeyes.