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December 16, 2013

An open wound

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Of all the possible places to spend the intimate and probably agonizing moments after his first loss as the Ohio State football coach, Urban Meyer sat outside his team's locker room in the vessels of Lucas Oil Stadium inside a golf car disinterestedly nibbling at a personal-sized Papa John's pizza like he'd just been dumped.

Aloof from the commotion swirling around him in the wake of a seemingly devastating 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship, the scene defined despair and despair defined Meyer and the Buckeyes on that cold Saturday night in Indianapolis.

Of course, while the abrupt end of a 24 game winning streak and shattered dreams of playing in the national championship might feel like the end of the season, Ohio State (12-1) will in fact play a BCS game -- just obviously not the one it had so quietly but dearly hoped for.

"I continue to watch film over it and just kept asking myself how did this happen and why did this happen and just lay in my bed sometimes … I just couldn't stop thinking about it because it felt so unreal," said junior and first-team All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier.

It's why, more than a week since faltering to the Spartans, Ohio State might be best described as an open wound. A berth in the Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson may dress the lesion nicely, but it won't stop the bleeding.

"The Chase" as Meyer and the Buckeyes like to call it was a decisive march as part of a larger resurgence onto the national stage after NCAA violations and sanctions birthed a dismal 2011 campaign and barred last season's undefeated squad from the postseason.

And the path before Ohio State this year -- one that would wind them through a woeful non-conference slate before playing in a downtrodden Big Ten -- was practically laid out in precious gold bricks before the league's title game (and even that was presumably a more-than-overcomable obstacle.)

In the week leading up to their bout with Michigan State, lettered-sized paper posters that read, "THE CHASE IS ON… THE CHASE IS REAL" reminded the Buckeyes that, indeed, the season -- and perhaps even the greater aurora surrounding the Meyer-coached program -- had whittled down to this one contest.

Then with quite literally everything on the line, Ohio State tripped over itself.

It's no wonder why Meyer -- who hadn't lost a game in three years dating back to his days of roaming the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium sideline at Florida -- drooped his head and stared at his pizza while brushing the graying hair upon his head as if to fittingly accompany the vacant look on his face and perhaps the nausea splashing and swirling in his stomach.

"Coach Meyer, I could kind of tell it was tough for him because we all expected to probably get to the national championship and win that game," Shazier said. "It was just tough on all of us."

It still might be tough on the Buckeyes, which are faced with the unenviable task of finally asking themselves: "So now what?"

"Grown men, they get up the next day, they go about their business and you can't dread on the past," said tight end Jeff Heuerman, who added his role on a late, failed fourth down conversion that put the game all but out of reach against the Spartans has replayed "about a million times" in his head.

That tussle -- the one between moving forward to its bowl game against the Tigers and clinging onto what had nearly been the realization of the promise of back-to-back undefeated regular seasons -- will likely torment Ohio State to various degrees in the coming weeks.

Similar poignant memories will surely linger. How could they not?

The way the Buckeyes choose to address such echoes is well within their control.

"I think when you start going back to the coulda, woulda, shouldas, I think that's poisonous to a team," said senior tackle and captain Jack Mewhort.

"We know we worked hard and we put in a lot of effort to this thing and obviously we're not going to where we thought we were going and where we wanted to be going but we're playing in the Orange Bowl and that's a big time bowl game and we're excited for that.

"I think when you start looking back and looking at the what ifs, that's bad for a team."

It could be doubly bad for an Ohio State squad with another battle on the national stage looming.

The loss to Michigan State probably validated the critics' fault-finding (the weak schedule, lack of quality wins, terrible pass defense) that followed the Buckeyes through every win over the course of its program-record winning streak.

Playing Clemson in Miami, Fla., isn't a bad consolation prize, but it's also very clearly not what Meyer and company apparently wanted.

Beating the Tigers might not do a whole lot to change the national perception that's dogged and damned the Buckeyes for the better part of the last decade.

But you can almost be sure that a loss in the Orange Bowl will further that notion.

If Ohio State is indeed asking itself the question, "So now what?" proving that its 24 game winning streak isn't a barren and in-vain feat might be a good place to start.

The Buckeyes have another chance to defend the legitimacy of the success that's defined them under Meyer.

National championship or not, that might be motivation enough.



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