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The Full Meyer: How Youth and Growth Fueled Ohio State’s Improbable College Football Playoff Championship Run

Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech in Week 2 thanks largely to an overmatched offensive line and a futile, young run game. On Monday night, the Buckeyes claimed a championship thanks largely to their dominance up front. And so to the many virtues of the playoff, we can add one more: It rewards growth.

In honor of Ohio State’s offensive line, let’s not mince words: That was an ass-kicking. I’ve scoured the most arcane recesses of the thesaurus for the right adjective — assertivebrusquedomineering? — to extol the performance of the OSU front in Monday night’s 42-20 romp over Oregon, but after a dominant display of that magnitude, the direct approach feels right. The Buckeyes lined up, kicked ass, took names, and sauntered out of AT&T Stadium as the undisputed champions of college football. How else to describe it? The Ducks were feisty, but in the end they were driven inexorably into the sea. For everyone who witnessed the Buckeyes’ coronation, the enduring image of this Ohio State team will be of a herculean unit that imposed its will on the sport’s biggest stage to such an overwhelming extent that even four turnovers ultimately failed to mitigate the carnage.

For those of us who have followed the Buckeyes all along, it’s hard to recall another final impression that varies so wildly from the first. As the victors basked in a shower of celebratory confetti on Monday night, I couldn’t help but think back to the first Saturday of September, when the same linemen were laid low at home in a 35-21 debacle against Virginia Tech, an unranked team that would go on to finish in a tie for last place in the ACC Coastal. The loss seemed to confirm all of the worst fears about Ohio State that had surfaced in the preseason. At that point, OSU was just another young team that looked young: erratic at quarterback, unsettled at the skill positions, and so overmatched up front that I described the rebuilt line at the time as a public safety hazard. On the same day that Oregon trashed another Big Ten front-runner, Michigan State, and subsequently climbed to no. 2 in the polls, the Buckeyes plummeted out of the top 20 and looked unlikely to return for the rest of the season.

And so, to the many virtues of the playoff, we can add one more: It rewards growth.

“I certainly did not see this happening after spring practice or early in the season,” coach Urban Meyer said after the game, effectively conceding that along with everyone else, he initially thought of the 2014 Buckeyes as a work in progress, building toward future returns in 2015 and beyond. He added: “This team wasn’t supposed to do this … To say we had this vision back in September or even August, no, not a chance.”

In the strictest sense, the line that ground Oregon’s defense into a fine paste on Monday night is the same one that teetered on the brink of disaster early in the year: The starting five of Taylor Decker, Billy Price, Jacoby Boren, Pat Elflein, and Darryl Baldwin remained the same in all 15 games. But remove the names on the jerseys, and the front that emerged over the last third of the season would be unrecognizable from its former self. In November, the Buckeyes averaged 262 yards per game on the ground against the meat of the conference schedule. In the Big Ten championship game, they mauled Wisconsin for 301 yards on 7.9 per carry en route to an eye-opening, 59-0 thrashing. In the Sugar Bowl, they took the fight to Alabama’s indomitable front seven, pounding out 281 yards on 6.7 per carry against an outfit that, at kickoff, boasted the no. 1 run defense in the nation. The face of the surge, tailback Ezekiel Elliott, evolved seemingly overnight from a reliable plodder into a headline-hogging home run threat.

Against Oregon, Meyer said, Ohio State’s goal was to turn the game into “an inside drill … a game that’s a block-and-tackle game” that took advantage of his team’s increasingly mature muscle up front. And so it was: The Buckeyes ran 61 times for 296 yards, amassing a 15-minute edge in time of possession in the process. (In the second half, Oregon’s wildly prolific, warp-speed offense held the ball for all of six minutes and three seconds.) Elliott, who ran eight times for 32 yards in the loss to Virginia Tech, logged a career-high 36 carries against the Ducks, notching four touchdowns and a BCS-era-and-beyond record 246 yards, eclipsing 200 yards for the third consecutive game. Between Elliott  — whom his coach described as “a monster” — and gargantuan quarterback Cardale Jones, Ohio State converted five of eight third-down attempts with 5 yards or fewer to go, and followed up two of the three failed attempts with successful conversions on fourth down.

“I definitely feel it now, but I knew going into the game that we wanted to run the ball,” Elliott said in the immediate aftermath, with a demeanor at the mic that betrayed more exhilaration than exhaustion. “We knew that our O-line was bigger and more physical than their D-line, and we just had to punch them in the mouth.”

ezekiel-elliott-ohio-state-oregon_triDavid J. Phillip/AP Photo

In hindsight, it’s tempting to exaggerate the depths of the situation Meyer inherited three years ago, the amount of work he had to do to get to that mouth-punching phase. At the time, Ohio State was coming off its worst season in more than two decades, a 6-7 debacle that had begun with the ouster of longtime coach Jim Tressel amid an NCAA investigation and ended with a four-game losing streak, including a Gator Bowl loss to Florida that saddled the Buckeyes with their first losing record since 1988. Less than a month after Meyer was introduced to messianic expectations, the NCAA hit OSU with sanctions that included scholarship losses and a one-year bowl ban.

But the post-Tressel cupboard was hardly bare, and Meyer wasted no time exceeding the hype. The following February, his first recruiting class was celebrated as one of the best in the nation. The following fall, Ohio State finished 12-0, savoring the only perfect record in the nation in lieu of a shot at a conference or national title. Last year, OSU extended the streak to 24 straight before blowing a pair of second-half leads against Michigan State (in the Big Ten title game) and Clemson (in the Orange Bowl) to close the year. Even without a championship to hang their hats on, Meyer’s Buckeyes had been every bit as good entering this season as his $4.5 million salary demanded, and then some.

Still, in many respects those remained Tressel’s teams, composed overwhelmingly of Tressel’s players, including the star quarterback, Braxton Miller, who signed on to play for Tressel before the purge of 2011. And in the end, those squads were unable to shake the second-class stigma that clung to Tressel’s program following lopsided championship flops at the hands of Florida in January 2007 and LSU in January 2008. Due in large part to those losses, the Big Ten has carried a reputation as a diminished league that lacked the depth to forge a legitimate national contender. The winning streak that followed Meyer’s arrival failed to make a dent in that rep, as it didn’t include a single victory over an opponent that finished in the AP Top 20. When Miller was ruled out for 2014 with a preseason shoulder injury, Ohio State’s odds of breaking through on the national level immediately went down with him.

In Miller’s absence, though, this team became the first of the Meyer era that was truly built in Meyer’s image, and even before Monday night the players who arrived on his watch looked like the bellwethers of an impending dynasty. Of the 22 starters against Oregon, 16 were Meyer recruits wrapping up their second or third year in the program,1 including the starting quarterback (Jones), the leading rusher (Elliott), Monday’s top three receivers (Corey Smith, Michael Thomas, and Jalin Marshall), four-fifths of the offensive line, and eight of the top 10 tacklers on defense.


1.

Amazingly, no true freshmen made the cut.

All of the above are scheduled to return next fall, as are Miller and his precocious successor on the depth chart, J.T. Barrett, which more or less guarantees that the Buckeyes will sit atop every preseason poll. Though Jones, a redshirt sophomore riding the crest from third string to stardom, did not deny after the game that he will at least consider turning pro, the abundance of riches at quarterback alone is enough to drive optimism through the season opener at Virginia Tech, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

But there’s no need to spend months imagining what this group will be capable of when it finally grows into its potential: We’ve just seen that potential in full bloom, ahead of schedule, with no concession to the inevitability of a learning curve. Ohio State wasn’t the best team in the nation at the start of the season, or at most points thereafter: Prior to leapfrogging TCU at the 11th hour for the fourth and final playoff spot, the Buckeyes hadn’t cracked the top four in the AP or playoff committee polls all season. But the Bucks were certainly the best at the end, by a wide and indisputable margin.

“They got stronger and stronger and stronger,” Meyer said, sounding slightly stunned himself as he contemplated his team’s trajectory in full.

“From Game 1 to Game 15, I’ve never seen anything like it.”