For each other
The story of the 2014 National Champions began in the middle of the night. 4 a.m. Snow on the ground. It was the winter of 2012, and the Ohio State football team was dragged out of bed for a lesson from new coach Urban Meyer.
Eyes blazing, whistle in his mouth, Meyer’s breath rose like smoke from a chimney. Up and down the frosted practice field, the players worked. Lunges. Bear crawls. Torture.
“It was freezing cold, and you think you are going to be out there for 45 minutes,” senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett recalled. “An hour and a half later you’re thinking, ‘OK, this is nuts.’”
Meyer’s message: The culture must change. No, it will change. If losing is acceptable, head back to your warm bed. But if you stay, you must follow The Plan.
The Plan is infallible, the two-time national champion coach told his charges again and again. It meant going as hard as possible, from every snap to every whistle. It meant holding each player accountable, on the field and in practice. And it meant growing the team’s bonds of trust and brotherhood. It worked before, and it would work again.
Stay, Meyer said, and someday you may be a champion.
Some two years later, The Plan was failing. The eighth-ranked Buckeyes had blown a night game at home to Virginia Tech. Heavy favorites, they lost by two touchdowns.
A young offensive line with four of five new starters was swamped by Hokie blitzers coming from all angles. Young quarterback J.T. Barrett — making his second start in place of senior Braxton Miller, lost for the year just 11 days before the opener — looked as green as the Horseshoe’s turf.
It was two games into the season, and Buckeye Nation’s worst fears were being realized: It would be a lost year without two-time Big Ten MVP Miller and the seven players who had left for NFL starting roles.
“After we lost to Virginia Tech, it was us against the world,” Barrett remembered. “Even our own fans were saying the season was over.”
At practice that week, the slow climb began. Meyer preached that if the players kept their heads down and worked hard, their dreams were still within reach.
“We needed to lose,” Barrett said. “We definitely needed something to wake us up, and that game did it.”
Refocused, the once-sputtering offense began to look dynamic, reeling off four straight wins by scoring 50 or more points each game — something no Ohio State offense had managed in 125 years of football.
At the helm was Barrett, who began to ripen with valuable game experience. His 45 passing and running touchdowns set a Big Ten record this season.
“As time went on, the game slowed down in my mind. Instead of thinking about what I needed to do against this or that defensive front, I was just reacting,” Barrett said. “Things I wasn’t able to see against Navy or Virginia Tech, I could now see as the season went on.”
“After we lost to Virginia Tech, it was us against the world,” Barrett remembered. “Even our own fans were saying the season was over.”
The Bucks began to gel behind the redshirt freshman, and other players from a highly regarded 2013 recruiting class stepped onto the big stage. On defense, standout defensive end Joey Bosa grew even more dominant, posting a unanimous All-American season. Safety Vonn Bell, cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Darron Lee showed promise for starring roles.
The class of ’13 began to shine on offense, too, with Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson responsible for explosive plays from the slot and guard Billy Price blowing open holes. And then there was Ezekiel Elliott, a sophomore running back with game-breaking speed who was beginning to flash tremendous ability.
In all, the redshirt freshmen and sophomores recruited in 2013 played a part in more than 80 percent of Ohio State’s first downs on offense — a startling statistic for a group just two years removed from high school.
With the offense clicking, the Buckeyes headed to Happy Valley for a night game against resurgent Penn State and 108,000 screaming fans. Up 17–0 at halftime, Ohio State came under siege in the second half, but managed a late defensive stand to put the game into overtime. The Scarlet and Gray prevailed in double OT, with Bosa slamming the door shut by bull-rushing a Penn State blocker into the quarterback to end the game.
“I would say 99 percent of the time, you lose that game. It was scripted that way,” Meyer reflected. “They came back, we fell behind. They scored in overtime, and we have to go down and score with a freshman quarterback, freshman lineman, freshman this, freshman that, and they toughen up and get it in there.”
In Meyer’s eyes, that was the season’s turning point. “That’s the beautiful thing about athletics. In this game, the immeasurables are the things that win games,” he said.
The No. 14 Buckeyes rolled into East Lansing two weeks later as a decided underdog to the defending Big Ten champion Spartans. Five Barrett touchdowns later — three through the air and two on the ground against a vaunted Spartan defense — and the jubilant Buckeyes headed home with a 49–37 win.
After navigating upset-minded Minnesota and Indiana, Ohio State headed into The Game against Michigan with Big Ten title hopes intact.
The team had overcome so many challenges — Miller’s injury, the Virginia Tech loss, nearly a dozen players with season-ending injuries — but the two biggest hurdles came last. Late in the 42–28 win against Michigan, Barrett broke his right ankle. And then the unthinkable: the apparent suicide of reserve defensive tackle Kosta Karageorge, whose body was found just six days before the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin.
Bennett, who had become good friends with the affable Ohio State wrestler-turned-walk-on, honored Karageorge by wearing his number for the post-season. “It meant a lot to me to be able to give the glory to him. And after every play and in the game, it was more just letting people know to focus on him rather than me,” Bennett said. “I’m a guy playing football, but he changed a lot of people’s lives. I think about him a lot.”
Going into the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin, the biggest loss on the field was Barrett. The Bucks would have to lean on third-string quarterback Cardale Jones — an unproven commodity better known for an infamous tweet than any football play.
Backed into a corner, the Buckeyes gave a performance for the ages, annihilating Wisconsin 59–0. It was enough for Ohio State to leapfrog Baylor and TCU and grab the fourth spot in college football’s first final four.
Jones was flawless, with three touchdowns and 257 yards passing. It was quite a turnaround — “a whole 180,” in Meyer’s words — for a once-promising recruit who languished on the bench with a poor attitude and spotty work ethic.
The sophomore from Cleveland Glenville High School recognized his U-turn, too. “It’s emotional because I almost became a statistic and now I’m not,” he said. “Long story short, we weren’t supposed to be here. All the odds were stacked against us through the whole season, and for us to be sitting right here as national champs, it [not] only means a lot to me but our community, Buckeye Nation and our hometowns.”
In an observation after Ohio State’s drubbing of Wisconsin, co- offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said of Jones, “He’s talented and he’s confident right now, so you can see him growing in that role. And every day [offensive coordinator] Tom [Herman] challenges him to continue to grow as a leader and to take charge and set the tone.”
And that he did.
In the Sugar Bowl showdown against Nick Saban and Alabama, the pundits gave Ohio State no shot at outperforming the nation’s top football program. But the Buckeye players never saw it that way. They had overcome great adversity by putting into practice what Meyer preached.
“It’s just being close together as a team and caring for one another. I don’t think it has a lot to do with football really,” Barrett said when asked why the Buckeyes triumphed when other teams might not have. “Oftentimes teams try to get that togetherness and fight for one another and brotherhood. They talk about it, but it’s not real on the team. On this team, it’s real.”
Said co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, a coaching veteran of 18 years: “The bonds between the players and this coaching staff are as strong as any team I have been a part of.”
Overcoming adversity proved to be the theme of the Sugar Bowl, too. Alabama took a 21–6 lead, and the Buckeyes’ storybook season began to evaporate into the New Orleans night. But Ohio State stormed back with 28 unanswered points.
Clinging to a 34–28 lead, the Bucks turned to Elliott at their own 15-yard line on first and 10. The St. Louis sophomore followed a magnificent crackback block from wide receiver Evan Spencer that took out two players and Billy Price’s pin-down block of an Alabama linebacker. Elliott was off to the races. Eighty-five yards and a 2-point conversion later, Buckeye fans were delirious with what looked like an insurmountable 14-point lead with 3:24 left.
And while Alabama would make the game too close for comfort in the final minutes, Tyvis Powell intercepted a desperation pass in the end zone and Ohio State sealed its signature win. Bourbon Street became Urban Street.
Ohio State was headed to the national championship game, having slain the SEC dragon. Save for a vacated win over Arkansas, the Buckeyes had been 0–8 against what most consider the nation’s top conference, including a pair of high-profile national championship losses in 2006 and 2007.
The star in New Orleans was Elliott, who bested the 220 yards he gained against Wisconsin by running for a Sugar Bowl-record 230 against Alabama, the nation’s top-ranked rush defense. While Meyer praised Elliott for gaining tough yards after contact, the Academic All-Big Ten honoree — as he did often in the post-season — gave credit to the big guys doing the dirty work for him.
“I just think the line has really come on,” Elliott said. “They have definitely opened up some great holes for me to run through. That gives me confidence, when I get into open space.”
Bourbon Street became Urban Street.
Elliott’s utter assault on the record book continued in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas. In one of the greatest performances in Buckeye history, Elliott ran roughshod over the Oregon Ducks, rumbling for 246 yards and four touchdowns in the 42–20 win.
On defense, the Buckeyes corralled Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota — the third Heisman contender Ohio State had faced in successive games — and contained Oregon’s famed zone read offense.
While four Buckeye turnovers kept the Ducks in the game, Ohio State’s speed at linebacker and in the defensive secondary — with 2013 recruits Lee, Bell and Apple leading the chase — was too much for Oregon.
Perhaps inspired by the death of his friend, Bennett emerged late in the year as a defensive spark plug. During the second half of the season, he had 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, including four in the rout of Wisconsin and one against Alabama.
“Michael Bennett flipped a switch. Something changed,” Ash said. “He’s become a much better practice player. He’s become a much better game player. Everyone else has fed off of that.”
And although it might not have shown up in the offensive statistics, Bennett and other seniors were the guiding force for the younger Buckeyes, Warinner said.
“Young players usually step in for older players because that’s normal progression,” he said. “But the leadership of your team — the Mike Bennetts, the Jeff Heuermans, the Evan Spencers, the Curtis Grants — those people are the ones who keep the trains going on the tracks, and they’re the ones who keep pushing how you practice and prepare. And then you plug a young guy in with talent, and he learns from them how to keep moving forward.”
Thoughts soon will turn to next year’s team. Certain to be preseason No. 1, the returning Buckeyes aren’t shying away from the D word: Dynasty.
“If everybody buys into the coaches’ way like they are doing and people get a little bit more mature and smarter about the game, then, yeah, I could see it happening,” Powell said. “The coaches have a great plan, and it works. If everybody just follows the plan, it could be a dynasty.”
Said Darron Lee — a redshirt freshman who earned Sugar Bowl MVP honors: “I can sit here and tell you there are other guys you haven’t even seen yet who are going to be really, really good football players. Guys from the ’14 [recruiting class] especially. You haven’t really seen anything yet.”
Of course, next year will also bring a quarterback situation that stands to be an embarrassment of riches. Does Meyer turn to a two-time Big Ten MVP, a Big Ten record-holder or the guy from the bullpen who only led the Buckeyes to a national championship? It’s a question he and his staff will have spring practice and fall camp to evaluate.
As the amazing reality of what they had accomplished began to sink in for the young Buckeyes, Powell — named defensive player of the championship game — thought back to the lessons about being selfless that Meyer had stressed all season.
“That’s something I’m going to take away for the rest of my life,” he said the day after the game. “Because when you play for someone else, it’s like you play harder. And that’s, I think, helped this team get to where we are, because everybody stopped playing for selfish reasons and started playing for each other.”
It was all part of The Plan, the road map their coach began to sketch out during those 4 a.m. workouts.
“We play football for a lot of reasons,” Meyer said after the title win. “We play it for the great state of Ohio. We play it for an incredible university: The Ohio State University. But most importantly, we play for each other.”