The reaction across Buckeye Nation following Ohio State’s loss to Michigan in late November was more or less the same for players, coaches and fans. All involved with the Scarlet and Gray thought the season was over. Another year was wasted.
“I don’t think we came in that next day, I can’t remember. But I mean, that should just go to tell you how I was feeling,” safety Tanner McCalister recalled last week. “I mean, obviously it was a lot of pain. That was our first loss of the season, so it’s been a while since any of us have really felt the feeling of losing. So it was definitely tough. It was a little bit of everything; feeling sorry for yourself, wondering what you could’ve (done) better. It was a whole lot of that going on.”
But once the emotions and frustrations of a second straight loss to the Wolverines, this one at home, began to pass, it became clear that all was not lost. While Oho State’s goals of beating the Maize and Blue and winning the Big Ten would not be reached, the Buckeyes weren’t out of the mix for a return to the College Football Playoff and a chance at a national championship.
“I definitely think it’s just hope,” quarterback CJ Stroud said. “I had a feeling that it wasn’t going to end like that. I definitely think the whole team did.”
What was clear is that the loss to Michigan had taken the chance to make the playoff out of the Buckeyes’ hands. If the national title dream was going to stay alive, the Scarlet and Gray were going to need help.
Unlike some years, not that much help was needed. If USC fell to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game, it would likely take the two-loss Trojans out of the mix. Would the selection committee put a two-loss Alabama, who also didn’t play in the team’s conference championship game, in the playoff over a one-loss Ohio State? Unlikely.
But the Buckeyes needed a reminder. When the team did return to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for workouts and practice the week following the rivalry defeat, there was still a bit of a hangover.
It was a sophomore defensive end JT Tuimoloau who delivered that reminder.
“It’s tough coming back on the field knowing the last time you were on the field you lost the big game, so it was definitely tough,” McCalister said. “I remember JT, he stood in the middle of us before one of our first practices and basically told us, ‘Hey, there’s still a possibility. Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s try to get better today.’… The young guy stood up and expressed how he was feeling about our possibility to play in the College Football Playoff still.
“To be honest, I think before he spoke, nobody really wanted to be there, just because we felt like everything was done. But with him just reminding us, ‘Hey, we’ve still got a chance. Let’s not waste this day. Let’s get better. So when that chance does come, we’re gonna be prepared.'”
Others spoke too, including Stroud who did not want what was likely his last game in a Scarlet and Gray uniform to be the loss to the Maize and Blue. From there, a renewed sense of hope and energy came through the team and the practices that week, despite not having a Big Ten Championship Game to prepare for, were, as players put it, “pretty good.”
“All the guys in this program are pretty much my motivation,” Tuimoloau said of what made him speak up. “It was something I felt like we just needed to get back on track, and these boys push me to go my hardest and bring out the best me every day. So I feel like, being a young buck and being around them, I know what we are as a team and I know what we can bring. So I just want to come in and just reiterate that the job’s not finished.”
Added Stroud: “We just went back to work. We got in the weight room with coach Mick, got stronger and then we started practicing some more since we didn’t play in a conference game. And then just getting better through that.”
From there, it was wait and see for Ohio State. The postseason fate of the team likely came down to the Pac-12 Championship.
Some Buckeyes gathered together to watch the game. Some elected to watch at home or out with friends. Either way, most of the Scarlet and Gray were glued to their TVs. If they weren’t watching, players were at least aware of the score.
Things did not start well from an Ohio State perspective. The Trojans took a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter. Former Buckeye safety Bryson Shawwho transferred to USC this offseason, was playing one of the best games of his college career with five total tackles and a fumble recovery.
This did not make his friends back in Columbus too happy.
“He was kind of pissing us off because he was single handedly helping USC win for very much the game,” linebacker Steele Chambers said of Shaw’s performance. “So it was annoying because you didn’t know how to feel because he’s about to destroy our playoff hopes, but again, we’ve been with that guy for like three years. So we’re mother f’ing him, but I mean he was playing his ass off. So I didn’t know how to feel.”
With a late second quarter touchdown, the Utes tied the game 17-17 at halftime. The second half belonged entirely to Utah, who outscored the Trojans 30-7 over the final two quarters for a 47-24 win.
The Scarlet and Gray were alive for the Playoff.
Then came Sunday. The expectation was Ohio State but nothing was sure until the top four teams in the playoff rankings were announced.
The Buckeyes gather at the WHAC to watch the playoff selection show. There was excitement but there were also nerves. Many players on this Scarlet and Gray team hadn’t experienced this before after Ohio State missed the Playoff the year prior.
ESPN made the team wait a little while longer, starting with Georgia at No. 1 and working their way down to No. 4. But when all was said and done, the Buckeyes were back from the dead and, as head coach Ryan Day put it a few hours later, had a new lease on life.
“We were all watching it upstairs and as soon as we saw our picture come up at the four spot, we knew we got a chance,” McCalister said. “And then once you see that, it’s kind of like ‘It’s on.’ As soon as we saw it, it was like, ‘Alright, it’s on. We got a chance. Let’s do it.’”
The Scarlet and Gray didn’t wait long to get back on the practice field. But even after the turnaround in emotion following speeches from Tuimoloau and others, these practices were different. Ohio State’s hopes had been realized and the team now had a carrot at the end of the stick in the form of the top-ranked Bulldogs.
Since getting back in the playoffs, there has been a further shift in the Buckeyes’ approach.
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“Our practices have been way more intense,” defensive tackle Michael Hall Jr said. “And you can feel it from coach Day down. It’s definitely a trickle effect.”
After losing a game and seeing all of their dreams nearly taken away, the Scarlet and Gray want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Now it’s about continuing to get prepared for Georgia and going out on New Year’s Eve and playing like the team that was No. 2 in the country for nearly all of the season.
“We’re motivated,” Stroud said. “I definitely think we’re excited to go back there and play again. Me personally, I don’t think God makes mistakes. And I definitely think that this has happened for a reason. And I definitely think that was God’s plan and not ours. So we’re just rolling on that momentum and just trying to just be better. Trying to fix some mistakes that played into that game, because the mistakes have always been there. It just shines a little brighter when we lose. So just trying to get better at every little thing and focus on his game and win.”