Saturday January 2nd, 2016

GLENDALE, Arizona — The red-clad fans remained pressed in their red plastic seats, crowded into a corner of University of Phoenix Stadium. They cheered and paused at the correct intervals, and then, as the band began to play, they swayed. Oh come let’s sing Ohio’s praise, Ohio State’s alma mater begins, and in the moments after the Buckeyes’ 44–28 victory over Notre Dame, that’s what they did. In the moments, and for a moment.

But only that. It didn’t take long for the pads to come off and the old questions to resurface, questions of what if, questions about Michigan State’s blowout loss the day before, insinuating, of course, that it should have been Ohio State playing in the College Football Playoff, not the team that dealt the Buckeyes their one loss. Asked about the Cotton Bowl, senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker said he wasn’t going to go there. Questioned about the season as a whole, about where it went and how it ended, senior linebacker Joshua Perry gave an inch. "It'll probably always be (a what-if) in the back of my mind,” he admitted.

And for a second, you want to feel bad. Here, in this locker room, the players’ Fiesta Bowl Champion hats reflecting silver glitter down from their bills, it shouldn’t be a referendum on perfection. It shouldn’t—except maybe they don’t care. Maybe they’re used to it. Almost certainly they know it’s the reason they are who they are, became who they became, built what they built.

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It’s the end of an era at Ohio State, which stands to lose 11 seniors and at least three juniors after this season. (Defensive end Joey Bosa, quarterback Cardale Jones and running back Ezekiel Elliott have all told coach Urban Meyer they will all forego their senior seasons for the NFL, and the Buckeyes could see more juniors depart in the coming weeks. Seniors Decker, Perry, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, tight end Nick Vannett and receiver Braxton Miller should all be drafted come spring.) Four years into Urban Meyer’s tenure as the Buckeyes coach, it’s the first great turnover of his regime.

Over that tenure Ohio State has won 50 games. That’s a record among Power 5 programs (Alabama will tie that mark if it goes on to beat Clemson on Jan. 11), and among all FBS programs, only Boise State has done it, from 2008–11.

This is a historic team. Meyer, for his part, seems gobsmacked and impressed by the magnitude of it all. These are his kids, and he’s proud, but every day since Nov. 21, there’s been a sense that they fell short—not from within the program, but from outside. That’s the day Ohio State lost to Michigan State, the day its playoff hopes took what turned out to be a deadly hit, the day that still pops up in questions even after its season ended with a convincing victory.

But it’s that same microscope, that same almost impossible standard, that shaped this team, especially the class that will leave Columbus after this season. It was Meyer’s first team after coming out of retirement and Ohio State’s hope for a turnaround after 2011, its first losing season since 1988. The pressure came early. It came fast. And it didn’t take long for players to internalize it—but to their benefit. "The environment that we're in and the microscope that we're under, you want to be able to gravitate toward guys in the building because everybody's kind of looking at you from the outside,” Perry said.

"I think that we have a ton of high-character guys, especially given the fact that the guys on our team, given the success that they've had individually, could just be all over the place in terms of attitudes. It really does make it easier to bond.… You're in a time in your life where you kind of want to grow and know those different things that you've never seen before, and you can do it."

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That’s why this group is special, and not just the seniors. That’s the key to its success, beyond having a crop of future NFL players in its midst. There’s a pride here, a sense of purpose, and so of course it rankles players that they’re playing in Arizona this week instead of in 10 days—even if they shy away from explicitly saying so.

And it’s not as if the Buckeyes came out soft Friday. Before losing Bosa—a projected top-three pick in April’s draft—on a targeting call (Meyer referred to the ejection as a “kidney shot”), Ohio State went up 14–0 in such a fashion that it looked like Notre Dame might not score a point. Without Bosa, the Buckeyes’ shorthanded line, which was also missing Washington and Tommy Schutt, struggled to pressure Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, and the Irish, though down by two scores for much of the game, remained competitive. It was the pass rush, though, that iced the game for Ohio State, when Darron Lee sacked Kizer and forced a fumble with 1:27 remaining.

Which is how we got here, to either a consolation prize or the end of the best four-year stretch in college football history, depending on your perspective. Ohio State will focus on the latter, and rightly so. The Buckeyes cared about this game, for win No. 50, but also for the statement it would make, the affirmation it would still bring for its seniors and underclassmen alike.

"We wanted to respond,” Decker said. “I think if we'd have laid an egg in those games (against Michigan and Notre Dame), our program's phony. Everything we talk about, everything we say to (the media), everything we say to each other, the things that we put up on the walls in the facilities, it's all fake. But it's real. This is a real football team that we built."

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And Decker almost didn’t get to build it. A native of Vandalia, Ohio, the tackle was originally committed to Notre Dame, and Ohio State didn’t pay him notice until Meyer took over in late November 2011. It was recruiting crunch time, and Decker felt an obligation to the school he’d been committed to for so long. When Meyer first called to talk, he didn’t even answer the phone. He listened to the voicemail, told his mother, at which point she pointed out that he’d better call back. The rest is history—Ohio boy gets to play for the team he’d always loved—and Decker admits that any coach, not just Meyer, could likely have swayed his commitment.

Still, Meyer remains the common thread. His name meant something. So did his system. And he found homegrown players like Decker, a likely first-round draft pick, whom the Buckeyes came so close to letting slip away. They’re as devoted to Meyer as he is to them, and the coach, after the win, wasn’t afraid to get a little misty. “It’s an incredibly achievement for a group of players that I love as much as I’ve ever loved a group of players,” he said of the past four years. “(I) appreciate ’em.”

So too do they appreciate each other. You can see it in the way players explain why this game matters. Anyone who would suggest otherwise, Lee said during the week leading up to the bowl, is clueless. “They don't understand our team, our bond,” he said. “They don't understand how deep it is.”

You can see it in Elliott’s shrug after his fourth and final touchdown of the day. (He finished with 149 yards.) The shrug was Bosa’s post-tackle move, but with his close friend and former roommate done for the day, Elliott paid tribute.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

And you can see it in the way the team embraced Bosa as he quietly made his way through the postgame scrum, having showered and changed into sweats. For a man of his size, the defensive end moves unassumingly, and as his teammates saw him for the first time since he left the field in the first quarter, they quietly chanted his name. Joeeeyyyyyyy. No animosity about the hit, no ribbing that he hadn’t been out there. Joeeeyyyyyyy. He’s one of them, and he was back for their last hurrah, or at least its final moments.

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On Wednesday, at Ohio State’s media day, Bosa was asked about everything from his plans to leave school—he has yet to publicly announce his decision, with word only coming from Meyer so far—to the disappointment inherent in not making the playoff. Bosa answered quietly. Of course players are disappointed, but that doesn’t lessen their focus on this game, he said. Then he shared a lesson from Meyer, imparted earlier in bowl season. “He made a big point that things don't always work out how you want them to work out in life,” Bosa said. “But that's life.”

And for this Ohio State team, life hasn’t been half bad.

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