COLUMBUS, Ohio - Twenty-one months.
That's how long it's been since anybody could truly say that the Ohio State football team was a united one.
In that time, the Buckeyes have seen star players suspended and subsequently leave the program, a hall of fame-caliber head coach do the same, and more losses in a single season since the Reagan administration. Save for an unlikely win over Wisconsin and a few big commitments in recruiting, there's been little to truly celebrate on a football front in Columbus.
That all changed last Saturday, when Ohio State knocked off Michigan State with a 17-16 win in East Lansing.
It may not have been their most dominant win over the past year and a half- in fact, it was far from it. And with a bowl ban in place at the end of the season, the win put the Buckeyes in first place of a conference that they're not eligible to win this season. But according to Urban Meyer, what his team gained from its win over the Spartans last Saturday may be more important than anything that shows up when one looks at the standings.
"I felt this team took a major stride in coming together as an outfit. And that sometimes I've seen that happen on the road," the first-year OSU coach said. "We eliminate a lot of the bystanders, and it was just our core group of players that went up there and found a way to win."
That may just seems like politically correct 'coach speak' to some, but having been a head coach in college football for more than 10 years now, Meyer said that he's had teams that have never experienced the growth that the Buckeyes enjoyed on Saturday. And given what this team has had to overcome to reach this point and a 5-0 record, that makes it all the more impressive to the two-time national champion coach.
"It was a team that matured. It's been a team that's been pushed around for a while. Lot of things have happened. 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," Meyer said. "It materialized over the weekend. It was really interesting to watch it happen."
If anybody on the Buckeyes' staff knows a thing or two about a team coming together, perhaps it's defensive line coach Mike Vrabel. A 14-year NFL veteran, Vrabel was a part of a New England Patriots franchise that won three Super Bowls in four years and will go down as one of the most successful dynasties in professional football history.
One of three coaches who was retained by Meyer from last year's OSU staff, Vrabel agreed with Meyer that last weekend's game went a long way towards proving how much this team has matured from a season ago.
"When a new head coach comes in, there's a time that everybody has to go through and the players have to understand- players that have been here- that things are different and change is going to happen," Vrabel said. "Until players actually realize that they're the ones that have to go out and actually make the plays and play on Saturdays, until they see that, it's tough for them to buy in. And I think that Saturday was a huge step for us as far as how close we are as a team and coming together."
With No. 21-ranked Nebraska coming to town on Saturday, the Buckeyes couldn't have found a better time to hit their stride. Should OSU find a way to defeat the Huskers, it will likely be favored in at least its next four games against Indiana, Purdue, Penn State, and Illinois, which would leave the Buckeyes at 10-0 heading into a Nov. 17 matchup at Wisconsin, followed by their season finale against Michigan.
Meyer's not willing to look that far ahead on the schedule, nor is he willing to call his team great, quite yet. But Saturday's win over the Spartans showed him that there are seeds in place to reach that potential, and given the last year and a half that the Buckeyes have been through, that's all he can really ask for.
"Obviously you're a bloody lip away from falling apart. I understand that the how fragile it is, because look who you're dealing with," Meyer said. "We at least have a chance of going to do some good things together because I felt like they came together."