In the moments immediately after Ohio State’s 17-16 victory over Michigan State, players and coaches took turns talking about what the win meant to them and how much they cared about each other.
“Words can’t explain what went on in that locker room, the excitement,” wide receiver Corey Brown said. “Everybody was just telling each other how much they love them.”
Urban Meyer estimates that in his 26 years of coaching — including 11 as the head man at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and now Ohio State — he’s only seen six or seven teams that ever truly “came together.”
The latest one to reach that degree of unity did it sometime in the midst of that difficult game in East Lansing, Mich.
“It’s been a team that’s been pushed around for a while,” Meyer said of the squad he inherited which sank to a dismal 6-7 record last season while being assailed around the country for NCAA violations on the watch of former coach Jim Tressel. “A lot of things have happened, a lot of things I’m probably not even aware of. But I could tell that it wasn’t a close team. It was a team with a lot of excuses. But [the togetherness] materialized over the weekend.”
Although they hardly put on a dominating performance, the Buckeyes (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) now find themselves ranked No. 12 and a unified team heading into Saturday’s showdown at home against No. 21 Nebraska.
Meyer knows he doesn’t have a perfect team. Far from it. He’d be the first to point out every little shortcoming of his Buckeyes.
But now he believes that a rather motley collection of guys is all in this together. And that’s a start.
Until they were pushed and pushed hard by Michigan State, Meyer said he didn’t know if the Buckeyes would have it inside to push back.
“You can’t tell that, not until you get into tough situations,” he said. “It’s when you get to places like this. It’s when you play a team that’s as good as you are, that it starts to show up. If that team wasn’t together, that team loses that game. No doubt.”
In other words, Meyer, his staff and his players credit their togetherness for giving them the winning edge in a close game.
“It was a 12-round boxing match,” said offensive co-coordinator and line coach Ed Warinner. “Both teams slugged it out. Both teams played hard. There are a lot of plays that could have gone one way or the other, and we made just enough to win the game. That all validates how hard this team has worked, the transition they’ve been through, what we’ve asked them to give.”
The defense limited the Spartans’ physical, intimidating rushing attack, which came in averaging 176 yards per game, to just 34 yards. Le’Veon Bell, third in the nation at 152 yards a game on the ground, finished with only 46 on 17 carries.
The offense moved the ball in fits and starts but rolled 75 yards after taking the opening kickoff to score a touchdown, then added another late in the third quarter for a 17-13 lead. Then everyone pulled together to make the advantage stand, with the defense continually making big plays and the offense taking over with over 4 minutes left and running out the clock to preserve the victory.
The Buckeyes clearly lost their way a year ago through all the turmoil and trials on and off the field. This is a year of transition, trying to regain the pride and confidence of the past.
The coaching staff thought the players would come around, although no one knew precisely when.
“It’s something when a new head coach comes in,” said defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, held over by Meyer from last year’s staff. “The players have to understand that things are different and that change is going to happen. It’s all positive things, but it takes time. Until players really realize that they’re the ones who go out and have to make the plays on Saturdays it’s tough for them to buy in. I think Saturday was a huge step for us.”